In yesterday’s post, I offered the first half of a list of The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God. Here is the second half.
6: The physical causes of everything we think of as the soul.
The science of neuropsychology is still very much in its infancy. But there are a few things that we know about it. And one of the things we know is that everything we think of as the soul — consciousness, identity, character, free will — all of that is powerfully affected by physical changes to the brain and body. Drugs and medicines, injury, illness, sleep deprivation, etc…. all of these can make changes to the “soul.” In some cases, they can make changes so drastic, they render a person’s personality and character completely unrecognizable.
And death, of course, is a physical change that renders a person’s personality and character, not only unrecognizable, but non-existent.
So given that this is true, doesn’t it seem far more likely that consciousness and identity, character and free will, are some sort of product of the physical brain and body?
With any other phenomenon, if we can show that physical forces and actions produce observable effects, we think of that as a physical phenomenon. Why should the soul be any different? Whatever consciousness and selfhood and the rest of it turn out to be, doesn’t it seem overwhelmingly likely that they are, in some way, a biological process, governed by laws of physical cause and effect?
Why I Don’t Believe in the Soul
“A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant on What Consciousness and Selfhood Might Be
A Ghost in the Machine, again by Ebon Muse on the Ebon Musings website. I know, I keep citing the Ebon Musings website. What can I say? Dude can write. Dude can think. Dude has a really well-organized site map that makes it easy to look stuff up.
7: The complete failure of any sort of supernatural phenomenon to stand up to rigorous testing.
Whether it’s the power of prayer, or faith healing, or astrology, or life after death: the same pattern is consistently seen. Whenever religious and supernatural beliefs have made testable claims, and those claims have been tested — not half-assedly tested, but really tested, using careful, rigorous, double-blind, placebo- controlled, replicated, etc. etc. etc. testing methods — the claims have consistently fallen apart.
I’m not going to cite every one of these tests, or even most of them. This piece is already ridiculously long as it is. Instead, I’ll encourage you to spend a little time on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer websites. You’ll see a pattern so consistent it boggles the mind: Claimants insist that Supernatural Claim X is real. Supernatural Claim X is subjected to careful testing, applying the standard scientific methods commonly used to screen out both bias and fraud. Supernatural Claim X is found to hold about as much water as a sieve.
(And claimants, having agreed beforehand that the testing method is valid, afterwards insist that it wasn’t fair.)
And don’t say, “Oh, the testers were biased.” That’s the great thing about the scientific method. It is designed to screen out bias, as much as is humanly possible. When done right, it will give you the right answer, regardless of the bias of the people doing the testing.
Plus, here’s a point that defenders of the supernatural never effectively address when they accuse scientists of anti-religion bias: In the early days of science and the scientific method, most scientists did believe in God, and the soul, and the metaphysical. In fact, many early science experiments were attempts to prove the existence of these things, and discover their true natures, and resolve the squabbles about them once and for all. (Not God so much, but the soul and the supernatural.) It was only after decades upon decades of these experiments failing to turn up anything at all that the scientific community began — gradually, and painfully — to give up on the idea.
Supernatural claims only hold up under careless, casual examination. They are supported by confirmation bias (i.e., our tendency to overemphasize evidence that supports what we believe and discard evidence that contradicts it), and wishful thinking, and our poor understanding and instincts when it comes to probability, and our tendency to see pattern and intention even when none exists, and a dozen other forms of weird human brain wiring. When studied carefully under conditions specifically designed to screen these things out, they vanish like the insubstantial imaginings that they are.
8: The slipperiness of religious and spiritual beliefs.
Not all religious and spiritual beliefs make testable claims. Many of them have a more “saved if we do, saved if we don’t” quality. If things go the believer’s way, it’s a sign of God’s grace and intervention; if they don’t, then, well, God moves in mysterious ways, and maybe he has a lesson to teach that we don’t understand, and it’s not up to us to question his will. That sort of thing. No matter what happens, it can be twisted around to prove that the belief is right.
That is a sure sign of a bad, bad argument.
Here’s the thing. It is a well-established principle in the philosophy of science that, if a theory can be supported no matter what possible evidence comes down the pike, it is a completely useless theory. It has no power to explain what’s already happened, or predict what will happen in the future. The theory of gravity, for instance, could be disproven by things suddenly falling up; the theory of evolution could be disproven by finding rabbits in the pre-Cambrian fossil layer. These theories predict that these things will not happen; if they do, then the theories go poof. But if your theory of God’s existence holds up no matter what happens — whether your friend with cancer gets better or dies, whether natural disasters strike big sinful cities or small God-fearing towns — then it is an utterly useless theory, with no power to either predict or explain anything.
What’s more, when atheists challenge theists on their beliefs, the theists’ arguments shift and slip around in an unbelievably annoying “moving the goalposts” way. Hard-line fundamentalists, for instance, will insist on the unchangeable perfect truth of the Bible; but when challenged on its specific historical/ scientific errors and moral atrocities, they insist that you’re not interpreting those passages correctly. (If the book needs interpreting, then how perfect can it be?)
And progressive ecumenical believers can be unbelievably slippery on the subject of what they really do and do not believe. Is God real, or a metaphor? Does God intervene in the world, or doesn’t he? Do they actually even believe in God, or do they just choose to act is if they believe in God because they find it useful? Debating with a progressive believer is like wrestling with a fish: the arguments aren’t very powerful, but they don’t give you anything firm to grab onto.
Once again, that’s a sure sign of a bad, bad argument. If you can’t just make your case and then stick by it, or genuinely modify it, or let it go… then you don’t have a very good case. (And if you’re making any version of the “Shut up, that’s why” argument — arguing that it’s rude and intolerant to question religious beliefs, or that letting go of doubts and questions about faith makes you a better person, or that doubting faith will get you tortured in Hell forever, or any of the other classic arguments intended to silence the debate rather than address it — then that’s a sure sign that your argument is totally in the toilet.)
A Self-Referential Game of Twister: What Religion Looks Like From the Outside
Why Religion Is Like Fanfic
What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong? The Difference Between Secular and Religious Faith
The Problem of Unfishiness: Religion, Science, and Unanswered Questions
9: The failure of religion to improve or clarify over time.
Over the years and decades and centuries, our understanding of the physical world has grown and clarified by a ridiculous amount. We understand things about the world and the universe that we couldn’t even have imagined a thousand years ago, or a hundred, or even ten. Things that make your mouth gape open with astonishment and wonder just to think about.
And the reason for this is that we came up with a really good method for sorting out the
good ideas from the bad ones, the more accurate theories from the less accurate ones. We came up with the scientific method: a self-correcting method for understanding the physical world, which — over time, and with the many fits and starts and setbacks that accompany any human endeavor — has done, and continues to do, an astonishingly good job of helping us perceive and understand the world, predict it and shape it, in ways we could not have possibly imagined a thousand, or a hundred, or even ten years ago.
(And the scientific method itself is self-correcting. Not only has our understanding of the world improved by ridiculous leaps and bounds; our method for understanding it is improving as well.)
But our understanding of the metaphysical world?
Not so much.
Our understanding of the metaphysical world is exactly in the place it’s always been: hundreds and indeed thousands of sects, squabbling over which sacred text and which set of spiritual intuitions is the right one. We haven’t come to any sort of consensus about which sect has a more accurate conception of the metaphysical world. We haven’t even come up with a method of deciding which sect has a more accurate conception of the metaphysical world. All anyone can do is point to their own sacred text and their own spiritual intuition. And around in the squabbling circle we go.
All of which clearly points to religion, not as a perception of a real being or substance, but as an idea we made up and are clinging to. If religion were a perception of a real being or substance, our understanding of it would be sharpening, clarifying, being refined. We would have improved prayer techniques, more accurate prophecies, something. Anything but people squabbling with greater or lesser degrees of rancor, and nothing to actually back up their belief.
10: The complete and utter lack of solid evidence for God’s existence.
There’s just no evidence for it.
No good evidence, anyway. No evidence that doesn’t just amount to opinion and tradition and confirmation bias and all the other stuff I’ve been talking about for the last two days.
And in a perfect world, that should have been the only argument I needed. In a perfect world, I shouldn’t have had to spend the last month and a half collating and summarizing the reasons I don’t believe in God, any more than I would have for Zeus or Quetzalcoatl or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
As thousands of atheists before me have pointed out: It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does.
In a comment on this blog, arensb made a point on this topic that was so ridiculously insightful, I’m still smacking myself on the head for not having thought of it myself. I was writing about how theists get upset at atheists for rejecting religion after hearing 876,362 arguments for it, saying, “But you haven’t considered Argument #876,363! How can you be so close-minded?” And here’s what arensb said:
“If, in fact, it turns out that argument #876,364 is the one that will convince you, WTF didn’t the apologists put it in the top 10?”
If there’s an argument for religion that’s convincing — actually convincing, convincing by means of something other than authority/ tradition, personal intuition, confirmation bias, fear and intimidation, wishful thinking, or some combination of the above — wouldn’t we all know about it?
Wouldn’t it have spread like wildfire? Wouldn’t it be the Meme of All Memes? I mean, we all saw that video of the cat trying to wake its owner up within about two weeks of it hitting the Internet. Don’t you think that the Truly Excellent Argument/ Evidence for God’s Existence would have spread even faster, and wider, than some silly cartoon video?
If the arguments for religion are so wonderful, why are they so unconvincing to anyone who doesn’t already believe?
And why does God need arguments, anyway? Why does God need people to make his arguments for him? Why can’t he just reveal his true self, clearly and unequivocally, and settle the question once and for all? If God existed, why wouldn’t it just be obvious? (See #2 above, in yesterday’s post.)
It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does. And in the absence of any genuinely good, solid evidence or arguments in favor of God’s existence — and in the presence of a whole lot of very solid arguments against it — I am going to continue to hold the null hypothesis of atheism: that God almost certainly does not exist, and that it is completely reasonable to act as if he does not exist.
So. What do you all think? Atheists — are there arguments against God’s existence that you think are more convincing than these? And theists — do you have any thoughts on these arguments? I don’t promise to debate every one of you ad infinitum, or indeed any one of you; but I’m curious to hear what you have to say.