“You Can’t Disprove Religion”: Three Counter-Examples


Proof “You can’t disprove religion.”

I’m seeing this trope a lot these days. “You can’t disprove religion. At least — not my religion.”

“Well, of course,” the trope continues, “many outdated religious beliefs — young-earth creationism, the universe revolving around the earth, the sun being drawn across the sky by Apollo’s chariot — have been shown by science to be mistaken. But modern progressive and moderate beliefs — these, you can’t disprove with science. These are simply matters of faith: things people reasonably choose to believe, based on their personal life experience.”

Then there’s the corollary to this trope: “Therefore, atheism is just as much a matter of faith as religion. And atheists who think atheism is better supported by evidence are just as dogmatic and close-minded as religious believers.”

Mind the gap The usual atheist reply to this is to cry, “That’s the God of the Gaps! Whatever phenomenon isn’t currently explained by science, that’s where you stick your God! What kind of sense does that make? Why should any given unexplained phenomenon be best explained by religion? Has there ever been a gap in our knowledge that’s eventually been shown to be filled by God?”

Which is a pretty good reply, and one I make a lot myself. But today, I want to say something else.

Today, I want to point out that this is simply not the case.

The fact is that many modern progressive and moderate religions do make claims about the observable world. And many of those claims are unsupported by science… and, in fact, are in direct contradiction of it.

I want to talk today about three specific religious beliefs. Not obscure cults or rigid fundamentalist dogmas; not young-earth creationism, or the doctrine that communion wafers literally and physically transform into the human flesh of Christ somewhere in the digestive tract, or the belief that the human mind has been taken over by space aliens. I want to talk about three widely held beliefs of modern progressive and moderate believers: beliefs held by intelligent and educated believers who respect science and don’t think religion should contradict it.

And I want to point out that even these beliefs are in direct contradiction of the vast preponderance of available evidence… almost as much as the obscure cults and the rigid fundamentalist dogma.

So let’s go! Today’s beliefs on the chopping block are:

1: Evolution guided by God.

Bug in hand Also known as “theistic evolution.” Among progressive and moderate believers, this is an extremely common position on evolution. They readily (and rightly) dismiss the claims of young-earth creationists that humanity and all the universe were created in one swell foop 6,000 years ago. They dismiss these claims as utterly contradicted by the evidence. Instead, they say that evolution proceeds exactly as the biologists say it does… but this process is guided by God, to bring humanity and the vast variety of life into being.

A belief that is almost as thoroughly contradicted by the evidence as young-earth creationism is.

Nowhere in anatomy, nowhere in genetics, nowhere in the fossil record or the geological record or any of the physical records of evolution, is there even the slightest piece of evidence for divine intervention.

Knee_x-ray_2 Quite the contrary. If there had been a divine hand tinkering with the process, we would expect evolution to have proceeded radically differently than it has. We would expect to see, among the changes in anatomy from generation to generation, at least an occasional instance of the structure being tweaked in non-gradual ways. We would expect to see — oh, say, just for a random example — human knees and backs better designed for bipedal animals than quadrupeds. (She said bitterly, putting an ice pack on her bad knee.) We would expect to see the blind spot in the human eye done away with, perhaps replaced with the octopus design that doesn’t have a blind spot. We would expect to see the vagus nerve re-routed so it doesn’t wander all over hell and gone before getting where it’s going. We would expect to see a major shift in the risk-benefit analysis that’s wired into our brains, one that better suits a 70-year life expectancy than a 35-year one. We would expect to see… I could go on, and on, and on.

And it’s not just humans. We’d expect to see whales with gills, pandas with real thumbs, ostriches without those stupid useless wings.

We don’t see any of this.

Panda_thumb What we see instead is exactly what we would expect to see if evolution proceeded entirely as a natural, physical process. We see “designs” of living things that are flawed and inefficient and just plain goofy: “designs” that exist for no earthly reason except the slow incrementalism that’s an inherent part of the physical process of evolution. We see anatomical adaptations severely constrained by the fact that each generation can only be a slight modification on the previous generation, with no sudden jumps to a different basic version. We see anatomical adaptations severely constrained by the fact that each new version has to be an improvement on the previous version (or at least, not a deterioration from it). We see a vast preponderance of evidence showing that evolution proceeds very slowly, very gradually, with the anatomy of each generation being only slightly altered (if at all) from that of the previous generation.

And that isn’t how things designed by a conscious designer, or even things tinkered with by a conscious designer, work.

Oven Even when a designer is stuck with the outlines of a previous design, they can still make significant, non-incremental changes. They can tear out the cabinets and replace them with windows, and move the stove to the other side of the room where the fridge is now. They’re not stuck with moving the stove one inch at a time, once every week or year or twenty years. And they’re not stuck with a system in which every inch that the stove moves has to be an improvement on the previous inch. They’re not stuck with a system where, if the stove has been moving across the floor in a series of incremental improvements, it’s going to have to stop if it starts blocking the door… because blocking the door is a serious disadvantage.

And if a designer is omnipotent, they’re not even stuck with the outlines of a previous design. They’re not stuck with anything at all. Why on earth would an all-powerful and benevolent god, a god who’s capable of magically altering DNA, bring life into being by the slow, cruel, violent, inefficient, tacked- together- with- duct- tape process of evolution in the first place?

Punctuated-equilibrium.svg Now, it’s true that we do see some evidence for what are sometimes called “jumps” in the fossil record: evidence that evolutionary changes sometimes happen very slowly, and sometimes happen more rapidly. (It’s a controversial position, but it is one held by some respected evolutionary biologists.) And some believers in theistic evolution leap onto this hypothesis and hang on like it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon.

But the “rapid jumps” thing is very misleading. “Rapid,” in evolutionary terms, means “taking place over a few hundred years instead of a few thousand” (or “a few thousand years instead of a few hundred thousand.”) And as recent research has repeatedly shown, evolution can take place surprisingly rapidly, in a matter of decades… and still be an entirely natural process of small changes, incremental alterations in each generation from the previous one. Exactly as we would expect if evolution were an entirely natural, physical process of descent with modification. So even if this “rapid jumps” (or “punctuated equilibrium”) hypothesis is true, it still doesn’t point to theistic evolution. Not even a little bit.

Again: There is not the slightest bit of evidence supporting the idea of evolution guided by God. And there is a significant body of evidence that strongly suggests the contrary.

More:
Stupid Design: Rube Goldberg Brains and the Argument for Evolution

2: An immaterial soul that animates human consciousness.

Brain question mark I will acknowledge freely: We don’t yet understand consciousness very well. The sciences of neurology and neuropsychology are very much in their infancy, and the basic questions of what exactly consciousness is, and where exactly it comes from, and how exactly it works, are, as of yet, largely unanswered.

But research is happening. The foundations for our understanding of consciousness are beginning to be laid. There are a few things that we do know about consciousness.

And among the things we know is that, whatever consciousness is, it seems to be an entirely biological process. A massive body of evidence points to this conclusion.

Prozac When we make physical changes to the brain, it changes consciousness. Drugs, injury, surgery, sensory deprivation, electrical current, magnetic fields, medication, illness, exercise — all these things change our consciousness. Sometimes drastically. Sometimes rendering an entire personality unrecognizable. Even very small changes to the brain can result in massive changes to consciousness… both temporary and permanent.

This works vice versa as well. Magnetic resonance imagery has shown that, when people think different thoughts, different parts of their brains light up with activity. Changes in thought show up as changes in the brain…. just as changes in the brain show up as changes in thought.

And, of course, we have the drastic change in consciousness created by the very drastic change in the physical brain known as “death.”

All the available evidence points to the conclusion that, when the brain dies, consciousness disappears. (And by “when the brain dies,” I don’t mean, “when the brain is temporarily deprived of oxygen for a short time,” a.k.a. “near death experiences.” I mean when the brain dies, permanently.) The belief that consciousness survives death has probably been researched more than any other supernatural hypothesis — nobody, not even scientists, wants death to be permanent — and it has never, ever been substantiated. Reports of it abound… but when carefully examined, using good, rigorous scientific methodology, these reports fall apart like a house of cards.

Brain Everything we understand about consciousness points to it being a physical, biological process. Physical changes cause observable effects. When we see that in any other phenomenon, we assume that what’s going on is physical cause and effect. We have no reason to think that anything else is going on with the phenomenon of consciousness.

And there is not a single scrap of good evidence supporting the hypothesis that consciousness is even partly a supernatural phenomenon. There are many gaps in our understanding of consciousness — that’s a massive understatement — but there is not one piece of solid, rigorously gathered evidence suggesting that any of those gaps can and should be filled with the hypothesis of an immaterial soul. There’s not even a good, testable theory explaining how this immaterial soul is supposed to interact with the physical brain. All there is to support this belief is a personal intuitive feeling on the part of believers that the soul has to be non-physical because, well, it just seems like that… plus thousands of years of other believers with a similar intuitive feeling, who have told it to one another, and taught it to their followers, and made up elaborate rationalizations for it, and written it into their holy texts.

Again: There is not the slightest bit of evidence supporting the idea of an immaterial soul that animates human consciousness. And there is a significant body of evidence that strongly suggests the contrary.

More:
Why I Don’t Believe in the Soul

3: A sentient universe.

1dart target You might ask why I’m including this particular belief in my Big Three Targets. You might wonder why, among all the widely held religious beliefs in the world today, I’m aiming my sights at this New Age/ Neo-Pagan/ Wiccan belief in a World-Soul.

My answer: I live in Northern California. ‘Nuff said.

So that’s why I want to debunk this belief. And I’m pretty much going to repeat what I said in #2 above:

We don’t yet understand what consciousness is. But we do know that, whatever it is, it seems to be a biological product of the brain.

And the universe does not have a brain.

51_Pegasi The universe does not have a physical structure capable of supporting consciousness. The universe does not have neurons, dendrites, ganglia. The universe has stars, and planets, and other astronomical bodies, separated by unimaginably vast regions of empty space.

And stars and planets and so on do not behave like neurons and dendrites and so on. They behave like stars and planets. They behave like objects that, as nifty as they are, are not alive, by any useful definition of the word “life.”

If consciousness is a biological process — as an overwhelming body of evidence suggests, see #2 above — then the universe, not being a biological entity, cannot possibly be conscious. To say that it is would mean radically redefining what we mean by “conscious.” And we have no reason to do so… other than a wishful desire to think of the universe as sentient.

Origin of species Consciousness has, for a long time, been a mysterious and utterly ineffable phenomenon. So, before Darwin, was the tremendous variety and mind-boggling complexity of life. And like the variety and complexity of life, consciousness is no longer ineffable. It is being effed. The unexplainable is being explained. And it is being explained as a biological phenomenon — as physical cause and effect.

Again: There is not the slightest bit of evidence supporting the idea of a sentient universe. And there is a significant body of evidence that strongly suggests the contrary.

More:
Why I Don’t Believe in the Soul (again)

***

Now. I can hear the chorus already. “How can you prove that? You don’t know that with absolute certainty! God could be intervening in evolution — just in ways that are indistinguishable from natural selection! There could be some sort of immaterial soul interacting with the biological process of consciousness, in ways we don’t yet perceive! There could be some weird form of consciousness that we don’t understand, one that’s generated by stars and planets and lifeless astronomical bodies! You can’t prove with absolute certainty that there isn’t! Your non-belief is just an article of faith!”

My answer:

No. We can’t prove that with 100% certainty.

Crumb_genesis-god But neither can we prove with 100% certainty that the universe wasn’t created 6,000 years ago, by a god who deliberately planted the fossil record and the genetic record and the geological record and the laws of atomic decay, all to test our faith. (Or all of which was planted by Satan, to trick us and tempt us into disbelief.) We can’t prove with 100% certainty that communion wafers don’t turn into Christ’s physical body on contact with the human digestive system. Hell, we can’t prove with 100% certainty that the earth goes around the sun, and that all our senses and logical abilities haven’t been fooled by some trickster god into thinking that it does.

And it doesn’t matter. As I’ve said many times: 100% unshakeable certainty is not the objective here. Reasonable plausibility, supported by carefully gathered and rigorously tested positive evidence, is the objective. And there is no reason to apply the “Reasonable plausibility supported by evidence” standard to the belief in young-earth creationism… and still apply the “If you can’t disprove it with 100% certainty, then it’s still reasonable for me to believe it” standard to the beliefs in theistic evolution, and an immaterial soul, and a sentient universe.

If you’re going to accept that young-earth creationism has been conclusively disproven by a mountain of scientific evidence, even though we acknowledge a .00001% hypothetical possibility that it might be true… then, if you’re going to be consistent, you have to apply that same standard, that same willingness to accept the reasonable conclusions of science about which ideas are and are not plausible, to all religious beliefs.

Including your own.

Especially your own.

Facevase.JPG Not everything is a matter of opinion or perspective. Not everything can turn into something completely different if you just look at it differently. Some things are either true or not true. It is not true that the universe was created 6,000 years ago. It is not true that the sun goes around the earth. And it is not true that evolution is shaped by the hand of God, or that consciousness is animated by an immaterial soul, or that the universe is sentient.

These things aren’t true for exactly the same reason that young-earth creationism isn’t true. They aren’t true because the evidence simply doesn’t support them. They aren’t true because the evidence actively contradicts them.

If you’re going to be a moderate or progressive religious believer; if you’re going to be a religious believer who respects and supports science instead of treating it as the enemy; if you’re going to be a religious believer who wants their beliefs to at least not be directly contradictory with the available scientific evidence… then you need to be willing to consider the possibility that your own beliefs are every bit as contradicted by that evidence as the beliefs of the fundamentalist crazies.

And if the answer is “yup, that belief seems to be contradicted by the evidence”… then you need to be willing to let go of that belief.

Comments

  1. says

    Very thorough post. I’m reminded of Sam Harris’ distinction between a belief being consistent with the evidence, and being derivable from it. Nobody, looking at our scientific understanding today, would conclude that there must be a disembodied Consciousness moving things about through psychokensis. But, if you start out with the need to believe in magic, you can special plead for the idea, move it around behind things, and make it vague and untestable. With enough finagling, you can still keep it around in a separate compartment from all your other beliefs.
    The problem is that doing this isn’t open-minded. It’s the opposite of open-minded.

  2. says

    Oh, I should have previewed — I didn’t mean “consistent with the evidence,” I mean compatible with the evidence. A disembodied Mind controlling events and manifesting itself through thoughts and emotions is not consistent with our scientific understanding, and it’s not derivable from our scientific understanding. It’s only “compatible with” science in the dull, vague way a dead bat on the table is “compatible with” a delicious dinner. You can only stick it there if it’s understood that nobody is going to confuse the two, or really expect them to work together.
    At best, the dead bat, like God, is going to provide ambiance.

  3. says

    Any minor quibble about point 3: depending on one’s perspective, of course the universe has a brain, many even – yours, mine – and is conscious. Saying that the universe lacks consciousness is still in a way treating consciousness (or brains, or humans) as something that is “put” into the universe from outside, by the hand of god as it were. If we “grew from” the universe then it’s unmistakable that this universe is “alive” and at least occasionally grows consciousness… and we are it.

  4. says

    Any minor quibble about point 3: depending on one’s perspective, of course the universe has a brain, many even – yours, mine – and is conscious. Saying that the universe lacks consciousness is still in a way treating consciousness (or brains, or humans) as something that is “put” into the universe from outside, by the hand of god as it were. If we “grew from” the universe then it’s unmistakable that this universe is “alive” and at least occasionally grows consciousness… and we are it.

  5. says

    Fair point, Eli. In fact, Carl Sagan once said that the human mind is a way for the universe to understand itself. But that’s not what neo-pagan/ Wiccan/ New Age believers mean when they say the universe is sentient. They mean it has sentience in addition to our own, and in addition to any other sentient life forms that might have evolved on other planets. That purported sentience might include or encompass the actual sentience of living things… but it isn’t limited to it.

  6. says

    Oh, well done!
    It’s worth noting, of course, that the pattern is still the God-of-the-Gaps one – what has transpired here is that they missed the gap. Which should, in a sane world, lead them to ask why this particular method so often leads to error…

  7. Maria says

    Great post!
    I don’t often run into people that believe in the first one, evolution guided by god, but the other two… Even if most people around me are not believers in the Christian god, boy are they wooish!
    One thing that really annoys me when I discuss things with people like that is that they treat all such discussions as a “getting along-process”. We are each suppose to give a little, and so if they agree on some things that I say, then can’t I agree on that there is an afterlife and that psychics can contact the dead? After all I can’t PROVE it’s NOT so! If I don’t, I am stubborn and a ‘know it all’. Especially with my friends I can’t really use all the arguments I have (things like you write about here on this blog) because they see discussing such things as exchanging subjective opinions about any given subjct. If I don’t, if I insist that these are claims that are either true or not, I am not playing nice.
    The other week I asked my friend, after a long and totally useless discussion, if it wasn’t reasonable of me to insist that I was right if someone else claimed that 2 + 2 = 5 and I know it’s 4? She thought it would be wrong of me to do that, because no matter how right I am (and she admitted I was) it’s TRUE FOR THEM! There is just no way around such a view of the world.
    I think it’s this that makes the modern progressive and moderate relugiois, and the newage woo people so infuriating to discuss with on the whole. What they believe is ‘true for them’ and whatever anyone else believes is ‘true for them‘ – they think maximum tolerance and goodness lies in this assertion (after all, what could be nicer than allowing all people their very own reality?) and any attempt to discuss the objective is doomed.
    It’s even more infuriating since they don’t actually live like that in their every day life. My friend is a nurse and would never insist, in her work, that any person can eat any medicine for any illness and still become well because it would be ‘true to them’. She will administer the right medicine to the right person like the responsible and very good nurse she is. She never use these idiotic arguments and conversation stoppers (stoppers at least if you want to keep the friendship) when we discuss every day stuff like what is the right answer to a question on a quiz show we are watching, or other every day practical things. But when ever the subject of beliefs, and the afterlife, and a soul, and watching stupid psyhichs on TV comes up (and believe me I avoid it as the plague) then suddenly, the ‘it’s true for ME’ is used to defend anything!
    They don’t even realize their own inconsistency and it drives me nuts!
    I actually prefer the fundies then, at least they are often internally consistent within their own beliefs. They don’t think that ALL people have the truth no matter what it is, while still behaving like there are objective truths separate from humans. The fundamentalists are rigid as pillars of salt, but the moderates and newage people are slippery as eels!

  8. says

    Amazing post. I can hardly wait to whip out some of these arguments in my next conversation with a New-Ager. Thank you for another wonderful piece of writing!

  9. says

    Defining terms: Agnosticism is about what we (don’t) claim to know, atheism is about what we (don’t) believe. They are not mutually exclusive. So there are four possibilities: Gnostic Theism (I Know there’s a god), Agnostic Theism (I believe there’s a god but admit it’s unknowable), Agnostic Atheism (It’s unknowable but I judge it very unlikely and therefore don’t believe there’s a god), and Gnostic Atheism (Based on evidence and/or logic I know that there is no god).
    An article in the magazine of American Atheists some years ago argued that the most reasonable position for defining ourselves was to say that we are Gnostic Atheists with respect to all testable gods and Agnostic Atheists with respect to all untestable gods. So for example we can say there are no gods living in a palace on top of Mount Olympus in Greece, but cannot know about Kenneth Miller’s god who acts so subtly at the level of quantum fluctuations that he’s undetectable, effectively “God is Luck”.
    So, Greta, you are pointing out here that the god of many contemporary Christians is a bit more testable than they would like to admit.

  10. J. J. Ramsey says

    If there had been a divine hand tinkering with the process, we would expect evolution to have proceeded radically differently than it has. We would expect to see, among the changes in anatomy from generation to generation, at least an occasional instance of the structure being tweaked in non-gradual ways.

    Um, the people who think that God has done an occasional instance of tweaking things in non-gradual ways aren’t theistic evolutionists. They are advocates for intelligent design. If one were to find such non-gradual tweaking, it would show that intelligent design had some basis in reality, and accordingly count against theistic evolution.

  11. Adam G. says

    “As I’ve said many times: 100% unshakeable certainty is not the objective here.”
    The problem is, for people of faith it is the objective here. They often claim to know, not just believe, that there’s a God. And unless you can provide 100% unshakeable certainty that there isn’t one, they’re going to continue to believe in a God, and really, we can’t logic them out of that because their belief is based in feelings, not facts.
    I know. I have a Mormon mother-in-law whose beliefs drive me crazy, but she’ll never give them up or even hear that they’re ridiculous. She just gives me that pitying look and shakes her head – the look that says “how misguided and faithless you are… it’s a shame.” Her faith is based entirely in what she feels, not in logic, so there’s no way to argue her out of it.
    Frankly, I’ve given up trying to convince the believers to stop believing. It’s just not worth it anymore. It’s like trying to teach a pig to sing – it’s a waste of my time and it annoys the pig.

  12. Matt says

    I like to say, “Well, I can’t prove with absolute certainty that invisible leprechauns don’t guide the evolutionary process, either. I can’t prove with absolute certainty that Zeus and the rest of the Greek Pantheon smiles upon us. I can’t prove with absolute certainty that purple, sentient unicorns aren’t the watchful protectors of the universe.”
    However, these are extraordinary claims that I cannot accept without compelling evidence. Even the Christian fundies could be considered “atheists” with respect to another religion.

  13. Matt says

    the rest of the Greek Pantheon don’t smile upon us.**
    As others have noted, gaps in our knowledge shouldn’t be filled with supernatural explanations. Once upon a time, we didn’t fully understand how certain processes worked in nature, either. After years of furthering science, we are now able to comprehend things like gravity on a much greater level. No supernatural simplifications were necessary.

  14. says

    it’s the same kind of logic employed in arguments like “abortion should be legal, but rare” and “the races are happiest when they are among their own kind” or “homosexuality should be legal, but children shouldn’t be exposed to it.” or perhaps even “she’s only a little bit pregnant.”
    religious claims are not half measures. there is no such thing as “godlike.” rejecting all myths but one still means accepting myth. my most annoying moments in divinity school came when i had gotten one or another religious apologist into an intellectual corner, “yes, that’s true, but…” and having to listen to the ‘but’ part. really smart and intelligent people, turning all that into the service of defending the one myth or superstition they held dear, even as they could let go of all the others. in my experience no religion is free from this hypocrisy, and the problem usually centers around issues like women and control of their sexuality, exclusivity, or which forms of ideology are to be forbidden.

  15. Nemo says

    Great post, but I have to take issue with your point about whales. There’s a reason why the largest creatures that have ever lived are both air-breathers and water-dwellers: Air contains much more free oxygen than ocean water, so more energy is available to air breathers. At the same time, the buoyancy of the water supports larger forms, and makes movement easier than on land.

  16. says

    Very well said. I especially like #2: in my opinion, the manifestly physical nature of the mind is one of the strongest arguments against nearly every form of religion that’s practiced today, liberal or conservative. The more we learn, the less plausible belief in the soul becomes. It’s really one of the areas that ancient theologians didn’t anticipate at all, whereas the creation stories and myths in the Bible and other books at least touch on the same general subject that the theory of evolution addresses more precisely.
    What’s interesting is how muted the response has been from religious apologists: there are no demands to stop teaching about neurology in school, for example, as there are for evolution. It may be that they haven’t yet realized the implications of what we’re discovering about how the mind works; or it may be, as above, that there’s less of an explicit scriptural warrant for them to challenge such findings.

  17. says

    I have one medium critique, I would say the good evidence is that consciousness is a computational process that happens to actually be implemented only in certain biological objects. So it might be fairly easy for something to not be alive and be conscious, it would though have to have the right sort of computing, which stars manifestly are not, so all this changes is some terms in your argument, (well makes it a little more complex cause you cant just say stars are not neurons, you have exactly what property of neurons stars don’t have, i.e. the information processing/communicating ones.)

  18. dagezhu says

    “Well, I can’t prove with absolute certainty that invisible leprechauns don’t guide the evolutionary process, either…”
    Your comment and the original article suffer from a lack of formal logic.
    If you really care about the nature of truth and the nature of proof, I recommend academic credentials in philosophy – the philosophy of science and epistemology would be two good specialties.
    Of course, it all depends on how you want to market your thoughts. Dennett, Dawkins, and Randi have all taken very different paths to sell atheism, but they are all successful salesmen.

  19. says

    … and, any minute now, religion should vanish from the world with an audible poof
    Oh, wait, religion isn’t merely a set of assertions. Calling religion invalid because of the fictitious nature of its stories is like saying colleges are totally invalid because the anthropomorphic mascots of their sports teams don’t seem to exist anywhere in nature.
    Here’s my basic pitch on why “God” doesn’t have to exist to be useful: http://justjohn.livejournal.com/181568.html
    (And me, I’m a SubGenius. We specialize in deliberately silly cosmologies.)

  20. says

    (Note: I am reposting this comment here to this post, where I assume the commenter intended it to go, rather than on the link to the porn story where he actually posted it. -GC)
    “Quite the contrary. If there had been a divine hand tinkering with the process, we would expect evolution to have proceeded radically differently than it has. We would expect to see, among the changes in anatomy from generation to generation, at least an occasional instance of the structure being tweaked in non-gradual ways. We would expect to see — oh, say, just for a random example — human knees and backs better designed for bipedal animals than quadrupeds”
    on the contrary, you’re assuming that the divine is perfect which is certainly not necessary. the cambrian explosion took about 1 minute to occur on earth’s 24 hour evolutionary clock, it’s very hard to believe that natural selection could implement radical changes in such a short time period, not to mention the human brain as well also underwent an explosion, doubling in size in less than 2 million years. you expect natural selection to produce things like a flower, a peacock’s feather, spots on a leopard?
    “the slow incrementalism that’s an inherent part of the physical process of evolution.”
    evolution is not slow and incremental, it goes through periods of explosions, see cambrian, for instance.
    “And as recent research has repeatedly shown, evolution can take place surprisingly rapidly, in a matter of decades.” you haven’t documented any of this.
    “The belief that consciousness survives death has probably been researched more than any other supernatural hypothesis — nobody, not even scientists, wants death to be permanent — and it has never, ever been substantiated. Reports of it abound. But when carefully examined, using good, rigorous scientific methodology, these reports fall apart like a house of cards.”
    again you fail to document this
    “There’s not even a good, testable theory explaining how this immaterial soul is supposed to interact with the physical brain. ”
    this is the ridiculous argument that because man cannot know it then it therefore does not exist. or, everything true can be known by man, or, man’s science can uncover any mystery. highly absurd.
    “There is not the slightest bit of evidence supporting the idea of an immaterial soul that animates human consciousness.”
    you view human consciousness as some sort of computer. if brain encounters x stimuli, then response y or z happens. highly absurd. you expect cubism, einstein’s theory of relativity, and the mona lisa to be the result of the brain encountering the right stimuli?

  21. says

    @ kyle foley:

    on the contrary, you’re assuming that the divine is perfect which is certainly not necessary

    I’m not assuming that the divine is perfect. (Although most believers in theistic evolution do.) I’m assuming that if the divine is powerful enough to magically change DNA to shape evolution, it’s powerful enough to do so in discrete design shifts instead of just gradual incremental adaptations that, coincidentally, look exactly like the entirely natural process of descent with modification.

    the cambrian explosion took about 1 minute to occur on earth’s 24 hour evolutionary clock, it’s very hard to believe that natural selection could implement radical changes in such a short time period.

    There are several entirely natural hypotheses to explain the Cambrian explosion. One is that it wasn’t really as explosive as all that — it simply was the period in which animals began to appear that more easily fossilized, which is why we suddenly find a lot more fossils. Another is that this was a period in which certain characteristics developed — predation, for instance, and vision — that greatly sped up the process of evolution. I could go on and on. What’s more, the explosiveness of the Explosion is often very much exaggerated. (more)
    And remember: Speciation has been observed in human lifetimes. We’ve seen it happen over the course of decades. Why would we think it couldn’t happen many times over 80 million years? The Cambrian explosion is interesting, but it’s far from inexplicable.
    What positive evidence you you have that there was divine intervention involved in the Cambrian Explosion? Other than, “Wow, it just doesn’t seem possible otherwise”?

    you expect natural selection to produce things like a flower, a peacock’s feather, spots on a leopard?

    Another of the “Gee whiz, it’s amazing, it must have been God” arguments. Yes, I expect natural selection to produce these things. More to the point, an overwhelming body of evidence from every relevant branch of science — paleontology, geology, anatomy, genetics, even physics — supports the theory that natural selection produced these things.

    evolution is not slow and incremental, it goes through periods of explosions, see cambrian, for instance.

    You must have overlooked the section where I discussed punctuated equilibrium, and dismissed it as a support for theistic evolution. Yes, there is some evidence suggesting that sometimes evolution proceeds more rapidly, and sometimes it proceeds more slowly (although the explosiveness of these “explosions” is often exaggerated). But within those more rapid periods of change, it still proceeds as each generation experiencing small, incremental changes on the previous generation. There is no evidence for the type of sudden, discrete changes in design that would support theistic evolution: a panda suddenly having a real thumb, for instance, or human knees suddenly being re-designed for bipedalism.
    Documentation: For documentation of evolution sometimes taking place rapidly (in evolutionary terms), read the “Before Our Very Eyes” chapter in “The Greatest Show on Earth” by Richard Dawkins. Or, indeed, any recent book on evolution. A couple of key examples: the lizards of Pod Mrcaru, the Richard Lenski e coli experiment, and John Endler’s guppy experiments.
    For documentation on afterlife research, read the Skeptical Inquirer.

    this is the ridiculous argument that because man cannot know it then it therefore does not exist. or, everything true can be known by man, or, man’s science can uncover any mystery. highly absurd.

    And this is the “We don’t understand something, therefore God exists” argument. Just because we currently don’t understand something, does that mean we never will? And even if we never understand something, why is that an argument for God instead of physical cause and effect? Every single phenomenon in human history that was once a mystery and that we now understand, is understood to be physical cause and effect. A supernatural explanation has never once been rigorously tested and turned out to be the right one. Why, therefore, would we jump to the conclusion that any given phenomenon that we don’t understand is probably supernatural?
    Besides, you missed my point entirely. I’m not saying that people can know everything that exists. I’m saying that, if you have a positive hypothesis that a specific something exists — such as an immaterial soul animating human consciousness — you have to have a falsifiable theory as to what it is and how it works. Otherwise, you have no way of determining whether your hypothesis is correct. We can come up with an infinitude of hypothesis about (say) human consciousness that aren’t 100% disprovable, but that aren’t testable or falsifiable in any way. How are we to determine which of these hypotheses is true? How are we to distinguish between the one correct one and all the false ones? If your hypothesis could be true no matter what data you get, how do you tell whether it’s true or not?

    you view human consciousness as some sort of computer. if brain encounters x stimuli, then response y or z happens. highly absurd. you expect cubism, einstein’s theory of relativity, and the mona lisa to be the result of the brain encountering the right stimuli?

    And yet again, we have the “Wow, it’s amazing, therefore it must be God” argument.
    I don’t view human consciousness as a computer. I don’t know what human consciousness is, and neither does anyone else. I’m simply saying that an overwhelming preponderance of current evidence strongly suggests that, whatever it is, it is physical cause and effect. Not just stimulus/ response — clearly there is massively complicated processing of data, and much of the “stimulus” is internal within the brian itself — but physical cause and effect nonetheless.
    What evidence do you have to suggest that it is not? Other than, “Wow, it’s amazing, therefore it has to be spiritual”?

  22. Nurse Ingrid says

    “you expect cubism, einstein’s theory of relativity, and the mona lisa to be the result of the brain encountering the right stimuli?”
    ummm…is this a trick question?

  23. J. J. Ramsey says

    Greta Christina:

    I’m assuming that if the divine is powerful enough to magically change DNA to shape evolution

    But again, a divine that did magically change DNA would be the Behe and Dembski’s intelligent designer, not the God of theistic evolutionists. Once you are talking about God altering the course of evolution through means that look like magic rather than a naturalistic chain of events, you are talking about what the IDers propose, not what people like Ken Miller propose.

  24. Amy says

    Item 1 I will grant you; you’re on target there. On 2 and 3, however, I think you protest too much, as though you’re trying to persuade yourself more than your readers.
    Consciousness doesn’t reside in the brain nor anywhere else we think of as “physical”; it, and we, and everything else, is energy that resides everywhere. The entire–and yes, sentient–Universe is the energy of consciousness. And, scientists are in the process of “proving” it. See such books as The Field by Lynne McTaggart; The Biology of Belief and others by Bruce Lipton; The Genie in Your Genes by Dawson Church; The Spontaneous Healing of Belief: Shattering the Paradigm of False Limits and others by Gregg Braden; there are many more.
    A new book I’m looking forward to later this year is Journey Through the Light and Back by Mellen-Thomas Benedict (www.mellen-thomas.com/stories.htm). He’s the most-studied near death experiencer in the world, having been dead–without vital signs–for at least 90 minutes before he returned to his body completely free of the brain cancer that had killed him, and with an amazing wealth of scientific information from the other side.
    Here’s some of what he learned:
    “Every sub atom, atom, star, planet, even consciousness itself is made of light and has a frequency and/or particle. Light is living stuff. Everything is made of light, even stones. So everything is alive. Everything is made from the Light of God; everything is very intelligent…[T]here is no death; we are immortal beings. We have already been alive forever! … [W]e are part of a natural living system that recycles itself endlessly. We are literally God exploring God’s self in an infinite Dance of Life. … So is every other form of life, from mountains to every leaf on every tree….”
    There’s the New-Age-y joke about the scientist who, after years of arduously climbing the Mountain of Knowledge, finds at the top a guru who has been waiting. “What took you so long?” the guru asks.
    Peace.

  25. J. J. Ramsey says

    Every sub atom, atom, star, planet, even consciousness itself is made of light and has a frequency and/or particle.

    That’s just really bad physics, and you can crack open just about any freshman college physics textbook to find out just how wrong it is. Good grief, light doesn’t even have charge or mass, which cannot be said for well-known subatomic particles like electrons and protons.

  26. says

    But again, a divine that did magically change DNA would be the Behe and Dembski’s intelligent designer, not the God of theistic evolutionists. Once you are talking about God altering the course of evolution through means that look like magic rather than a naturalistic chain of events, you are talking about what the IDers propose, not what people like Ken Miller propose.

    J.J.: That’s true of some adherents of theistic evolution, but not all. Many adherents of theistic evolution *do* believe that there is divine intervention at various points along the process of evolution; that the process of evolution was shaped by God.
    More to the point: Many believers in theistic evolution don’t stop to think carefully to think about what they mean by it. They just say, “Evolution is a tool created by God to create life,” without thinking through the implications of this statement, or even clearly defining what exactly it is they’re asserting. Are they asserting that God intervened in the process of evolution? Are they asserting that God started the process of evolution, creating the conditions for life knowing that it would eventually evolve into humanity, but then didn’t intervene? Often they don’t really consider these questions. They just say, “God used evolution as a tool to create life and humanity,” and don’t think it through any further.
    And finally, I would argue that even the most “hands-off,” super-deistic version of theistic evolution is unsupportable. Again I ask, with a slight alteration: Why on earth would an all-powerful and benevolent god, a god who’s capable of bringing the universe into existence our of nothingness, bring life into being by the slow, cruel, violent, inefficient, tacked- together- with- duct- tape process of evolution? The same arguments that work against the more interventionist versions of theistic evolution also work against the more deistic versions — there’s a massive body of evidence supporting the idea that evolution is an entirely natural process, there’s not a shred of positive evidence to support evolution being a divine creation, and the only reason for believing that God had anything to do with it is wishful thinking.

  27. says

    Consciousness doesn’t reside in the brain nor anywhere else we think of as “physical”; it, and we, and everything else, is energy that resides everywhere. The entire–and yes, sentient–Universe is the energy of consciousness. And, scientists are in the process of “proving” it.

    No, they’re not.
    Scientists are doing nothing of the kind.
    Not good scientists, anyway.
    You can find a handful of fringe scientists who declare their support for just about any theory: the moon landing was faked, the earth is flat, whatever. But the overwhelming scientific consensus among people who are carefully and rigorously studying the matter is that consciousness is a biological product of the brain.
    Like I said: This conclusion has been hard to come by. Nobody wants to think of death as permanent — not even scientists. And for decades, in the earliest days of the development of the modern scientific method, scientists assumed that the soul existed, and extensive research was focused on trying to determine what exactly was its nature and its properties. It was only after decades of this area of research proving to be a complete dead end that the scientific community gradually, and painfully, let go of the idea.
    Here’s the thing. When we’re very powerfully attached to a hypothesis, when we have a strong emotional stake in that hypothesis being right, that’s when we have to be extra-rigorous in making sure the evidence really supports our hypothesis and that our conclusions aren’t being twisted by rationalization and confirmation bias and all the other tricks our brain uses to fool us into believing what we want to believe. And given the powerful desire people have to believe that death is not permanent, the case for an immortal, immaterial soul has to be made very carefully, and and has to be supported with an excellent amount of carefully gathered, rigorously tested evidence. It is not. It is supported with vague philosophy, appalling scientific methodology, and manglings of quantum physics that make actual quantum physicists want to bang their heads against the wall.
    And, as J.J. said, the theory that matter is made of light is not only wrong — it’s wildly, incontrovertibly, laughably wrong.

  28. says

    So Amy. I spent ten minutes doing a little Googling on these “scientists” you cited. And here’s what I found, from these writers’ own websites:
    Not one of them is a neurologist, or a neuropsychologist, or a psychiatrist, or anyone with any training or credentials in any field related to consciousness.
    Lynne McTaggart apparently has no academic credentials – not even listed on her own Website, which describes her as “a journalist, author, and public speaker.”
    Dawson Church has a BA in Communications. His Ph.D. is in “integrative healthcare” at a graduate seminary school.
    Gregg Braden’s sole scientific credentials are in the fields of computer science and geology.
    Bruce Lipton has the best credentials of the lot, in that he has an actual PhD in an actual biologial field. But his PhD is in cell biology — not in neuroscience or neuropsychology. (And while he had a real productive scientific career in that field for a long time, it seems to have gone off the rails.)
    If you’re going to cite “scientists” in support of your belief that consciousness comes from an immaterial soul, please don’t waste my time and my readers’ time citing “scientists” with no training or research in the relevant fields, and who, in some cases, are not even scientists at all. Thank you.

  29. says

    In your introduction you state:-
    “Therefore, atheism is just as much a matter of faith as religion. And atheists who think atheism is better supported by evidence are just as dogmatic and close-minded as religious believers.”
    In support of this statement you cite several obviously wrong and completely ridiculous belief systems, which should be easily rejected by any sane educated person.
    However the logical flaw in your argument is that of all the infinite possible explanations for the existence of our Universe and ourselves, you reject the possibility that it/we might be the product of purposeful conscious creation. Without concrete evidence this does require a “leap of faith”. Agnosticism is a more logical approach to the question.
    I believe the difficulty lies in the use of the word God to describe this being. Due to the negative influence of religions, hijacking this word and narrowing the meaning to describe a hateful vindictive male entity. It is no wonder that no rational person would want to believe in such a thing.
    The truth is that nobody really knows the answer to this question and probably never will.
    I have a good solid background in Science, and I have no belief in a particular religion or the contents of the Bible or any other so called “Holy Book”. That said despite our impressive Scientific achievements in understanding our Physical reality, there is still much to be learned.
    It is quite possible that some aspects of our Universe, such as the phenomena of consciousness for example are not accessible to the scientific process. Your article describes thinking and perception in a very mechanistic way. Describing experiments which highlight areas of the brain which become excited when experiencing certain stimuli for example. This does not explain the phenomena of conscious awareness. as opposed to when the brain is engaged in perceiving, thinking or remembering. I am speaking of pure conscious awareness, the experience of being alive. If you can stop the constant stream of thoughts in your head, there is still a sensation of being, or just the feeling pure awareness. What is that feeling? How could you describe it scientifically?
    There is no doubt that evolution is correct, and it plays an important role in the development of species. However this neither proves nor disproves anything.
    There have been at least two articles in Scientific American recently in which the author of the paper attempts to explain the existence of life based purely on classical chemistry and physics. It is true that certain amino acids will form in the presence of water nitrogen and lightning. However this is a long way from dna or even rna. In each article the authors ultimately resorted to describing the chemical soup from which life emerged as if it were purposefully attempting to create life. At some point they begin describing it no longer as just a collection of chemical molecules, but rather as if it were trying to assemble itself into a very specific configuration, compatible with the creation of life. In fact there is no credible description for how life was created. We simply do not know.
    There are many examples of people who experience conscious awareness beyond the physical confines of their body. It can happen during what is known as a NDE or Near Death Experience. During surgical procedures or after accidents, people have reported being aware of leaving their bodies but still retaining their sense of self awareness. More importantly some of them in their disembodied state have overheard discussions between their relatives gathered outside in the waiting room and reported them later much to the amazement of their relatives. Others are able to describe medical procedures being performed on them while their doctors worked on them. These people who had no medical training were able to describe what the doctors did, and many details of their time in the operating theater, all while their eyes were taped shut, and their hearts had stopped beating, i.e. they were “clinically dead”.
    There are some people who have the ability to intuit the future, and others who are able to communicate with spirits. Unfortunately there are some who have no talent in this direction, but would rather take advantage of grieving relatives for monetary gain. This has discredited the few genuine people that have the gift and bought the whole subject into disrepute. “Lisa Williams” is an example of a genuine psychic.
    Even the physical body is not that well understood by modern medicine. In China they have studied the subject of subtle energy or “chi” for centuries, and use it to effectively cure many medical conditions, manipulating the bodies energy field with acupuncture needles at certain specific points. Do these subtle energy fields exist?
    I am not claiming to know any more about these things than anyone else, however, I like to keep an open mind on the subject. There are simply too many unexplained phenomena to ignore, I think it would be prudent refrain from making any assertions about these deeper questions and wait until there is more evidence, for or against.

  30. says

    …of all the infinite possible explanations for the existence of our Universe and ourselves, you reject the possibility that it/we might be the product of purposeful conscious creation. Without concrete evidence this does require a “leap of faith”. Agnosticism is a more logical approach to the question.

    You misunderstand what atheism is. Atheism is not 100% certainty that there is no God. It’s the conclusion that the God hypothesis is inconsistent with itself and unsupported by the available evidence, and that unless we see better evidence or better arguments for the God hypothesis, we’re going to assume that it’s incorrect.
    And the whole point of this piece is that there is concrete evidence against the “conscious creator” hypothesis. Life — to take just one example — looks absolutely nothing like what we would expect it to look like if it were created by a conscious designer.
    Not that atheists are obligated to supply concrete evidence for our case. Atheists aren’t the ones making the positive claim. Believers are the ones making the positive claim. Atheism is simply the null hypothesis: the hypothesis that if you don’t have good reason to think that positive entity (X) exists, it’s best to assume that it doesn’t. But nevertheless, many of us do think we have a good case against God — not 100% certain, but strong, and supported by both good logic and good evidence.
    I reject the hypothesis of a conscious creator because there is not a scrap of evidence to support it, and a substantial body of evidence against it. If you have some evidence that would change my mind, by all means, present it. I’d be interested to see it. But don’t just say that my reasonable conclusion based on the evidence (or lack thereof) is a “leap of faith.”

    Describing experiments which highlight areas of the brain which become excited when experiencing certain stimuli for example.

    You are apparently not familiar with the research I’m talking about. I’m not just talking about the brian lighting up in response to certain external stimuli. It lights up in different patterns in response to self-generated thoughts, emotions, remembering music, thinking about loved ones, etc.
    Do I understand how the processes of the brain turns into consciousness and self-awareness and the qualia of experience? No. Neither does anyone else… yet. All I know is that the overwhelming body of current evidence suggests that this is happening. Change the brain chemistry, and consciousness/ self-awareness/ the qualia of experience all change. We don’t know exactly how it does that… but the evidence is overwhelming that it does.
    And for the record, I don’t think this is mechanistic. I think it is mind-bogglingly amazing. The idea that, out of the energy of the sun and the stuff of the earth, beings have emerged with self-awareness? That’s not mechanistic. That’s one of the coolest things I can imagine.
    Finally: Your argument would have a lot more credibility if you didn’t keep citing discredited “evidence.” Near death experiences? The experiments were done using terrible methodology… and in any case, the results are entirely consistent with other alterations of consciousness due to alterations in brain chemistry (in this case due to oxygen deprivation). Chi energy in acupuncture? Acupuncture has been conclusively shown to be no more effective than placebo. If that’s your evidence, then please forgive me if I remain unimpressed.
    (Oh, and Maria: I don’t think it’s Halloween. This piece got reprinted on AlterNet, and it’s getting a lot of traffic there.)

  31. Maria says

    Oh, and Maria: I don’t think it’s Halloween. This piece got reprinted on AlterNet, and it’s getting a lot of traffic there.
    That was a bit tongue in cheek :-) but, oh, that explains it! I just thought there’s been unusually many very woo-ish comments lately.

  32. J. J. Ramsey says

    Greta Christina:

    Many adherents of theistic evolution *do* believe that there is divine intervention at various points along the process of evolution; that the process of evolution was shaped by God.

    But not in a way that would be distinguishable from natural processes. The moment you start talking about God intervening in some miraculous action to tweak things “in non-gradual ways,” as you put it, is the moment you stop talking about theistic evolution and start talking about ID. Look at the sorts of arguments that IDers make with regards to supposed irreducible complexity. Their gist is that certain biological structures required non-gradual tweaks in order to come about–which is something that theistic evolutionists deny.
    Greta Christina:

    Again I ask, with a slight alteration: Why on earth would an all-powerful and benevolent god, a god who’s capable of bringing the universe into existence our of nothingness, bring life into being by the slow, cruel, violent, inefficient, tacked- together- with- duct- tape process of evolution?

    Beats me, but that’s a thoroughly separate question from whether you are attributing the beliefs of IDers to theistic evolutionists. To put it bluntly, you cannot consistently claim that theistic evolutionists “evolution proceeds exactly as the biologists say it does” while also claiming that theistic evolutionists should expect to see non-gradual tweaks.

  33. says

    To put it bluntly, you cannot consistently claim that theistic evolutionists “evolution proceeds exactly as the biologists say it does” while also claiming that theistic evolutionists should expect to see non-gradual tweaks.

    Except that that’s exactly what they’re claiming. Many of them, anyway. Example: Like I said in my piece, many adherents of theistic evolution hang onto punctuated equilibrium like it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon, saying, “See? Those jumps in the fossil record? That’s where God intervened!” They don’t reject the fossil record or claim that it was planted by God or Satan; they just claim that the fossil record supports their case. Which it absolutely doesn’t.
    My whole point here is that theistic evolution is not well thought-out, internally consistent, or consistent with the evidence. And it does, in places, overlap with ID. It’s a messy, sloppy hypothesis, one that basically says, “We can reconcile religious belief with science,” without thinking very carefully about whether that’s really true… or about who it’s making common cause with.

  34. J. J. Ramsey says

    Greta Christina:

    Example: Like I said in my piece, many adherents of theistic evolution hang onto punctuated equilibrium like it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon, saying, “See? Those jumps in the fossil record? That’s where God intervened!”

    Maybe that what laypeople who think they are accepting theistic evolution believe, but I haven’t seen, for example, Ken Miller or Francis Collins, say anything of the kind, and when organizations like the NCSE encourage believers to adopt theistic evolution as opposed to creationism, the kind of “god-of-the-gaps” scenario that you describe is not what they have in mind. Indeed, in claim CA601.1 of Talk.Origins’ index of creationist claims, one complaint about theistic evolution is that it “is no different from atheistic evolution because it does not show God acting directly.”

    My whole point here is that theistic evolution is not well thought-out, internally consistent, or consistent with the evidence.

    And you are doing that by presenting a view that is “not well thought-out, internally consistent, or consistent with the evidence” and calling it “theistic evolution,” even though that view isn’t what a lot of people would call theistic evolution in the first place.
    Come on, you are usually better than this.

  35. says

    Okay, J.J. I think I see the problem here.
    I think we’ve both made errors.
    The error I think you’re making is that you’re treating theistic evolution as a coherent, consistent position, articulated by the intellectual leaders you’re citing, with adherents who share roughly the same position on how God generated evolution and the degree to which he did or did not intervene once the process began.
    It’s not. Theistic evolution is all over the map, covering a wide spectrum of beliefs about God’s degree of intervention in life, with some adherents being essentially deists, and others being very close to intelligent design proponents, and many others being somewhere in between. And it’s often not well thought-out, or even thought-out at all. People who believe it will say, “I accept the science, evolution happened, and evolution was how God created life,” without thinking through what exactly that means or what it implies.
    My error was:
    (a) not making that clearer,
    and (b) not making it clearer that I was arguing here against the more interventionist end of that spectrum.
    For the record, I also oppose the deistic end of that spectrum, but for different reasons. My main objections to deism are that there’s no evidence or reason to think it’s true; it violates Occam’s razor; and it encourages people to hold onto beliefs they have no reasons or evidence for, simply because they want to. (And at least one of my objections applies to both ends of the spectrum: namely, why would a God who’s powerful enough to create a universe out of nothing choose to create life by the slow, cruel, violent, inefficient, tacked- together- with- duct- tape process of evolution? )
    But I should have made clearer that theistic evolution covers a wide spectrum of belief. And I should have made clearer which end of that spectrum I was arguing against. I thought that was clear from context; I guess it wasn’t. My bad.

  36. says

    Thank you for your thoughtful response to my comment.
    I’m afraid you misunderstood me. I am not arguing in favor of the “God Hypothesis”. I am saying that we are not limited to just two choices in searching for an explanations for our existence. Either the “God Hypothesis” or atheism. It is not that simple. The problem is with the word “God”. Unfortunately because this word has acquired some very negative connotations, it has closed many peoples minds to other possibilities. There may be some things we will never understand about the universe and about ourselves. This is very unsatisfying to the ego, which always must be in control. Creating this false choice and then vigorously defending one side of it, does not really provide any answers, but it does give a sense of control which is very pleasing to the ego.
    Now to answer your points specifically:-
    “Change the brain chemistry, and consciousness/ self-awareness/ the qualia of experience all change. We don’t know exactly how it does that… but the evidence is overwhelming that it does.”
    Here you are mistaking the cause with the effect. It is true that perceptions, thoughts and emotions are susceptible to drugs. However all of these phenomena spring from the seat of our consciousness. They are attributes of consciousness Let me give an example. Say a beam of light is passing through a window. If we put some blue transparent plastic over the window, the light will appear to change. In this example the beam of light is our consciousness, and the window is the physical and biological processes which comprise our minds. The blue transparent plastic is a drug which alters our perceptions. In this example I am distinguishing between conscious awareness and the functions of the mind.
    Now to your point about evolution:-
    “Quite the contrary. If there had been a divine hand tinkering with the process, we would expect evolution to have proceeded radically differently than it has.”
    Here you are making the assumption that if evolution were guided, it would proceed in a manner which you consider logical or orderly. This assumes a knowledge of the motives and intentions of the guider. Your objections to this perceived flaw prove nothing.
    In my previous post I referred to a number of metaphysical phenomena for which science has no explanation. The near death experience or NDE is one of these. It has certainly not been discredited as you assert. There have been numerous reports of this phenomena. I mentioned several of these reports. In particular, a case of a young woman who was involved in a horrible car accident. She was clinically dead for several minutes. During that time she found herself floating above her body and moving into other areas of the hospital until she saw her relatives sitting around in the waiting room. She overheard a conversation between her Mother and her Grandmother. The Grandmother was a non smoker asked for a cigarette from her Mother. She was able to describe this incident later much to the astonishment of everyone. I mention this case and the other cases in my previous post because they cannot be explained by that old chestnut of “diminished oxygen to the dying brain”. It is certainly possible for all these people to have made it up and then conspired together. However it is hard to see what possible motive they could have to do so.
    In closing, my wife like you also suffers from knee pain. She gets real relief for her symptoms from an acupuncturist. The swelling is reduced, and she is able to climb stairs without pain.

  37. DSimon says

    Harold:
    Regarding the definition of God:
    You’re just engaging in armchair psychoanalysis there; rather than telling us about the supposed psychological basis for our arguments, please address them directly, starting by defining what you mean by God.
    Regarding consciousness:
    Can you provide any neurological or physical reason for us to think the actual processes of consciousness are anything like what’s described in your analogy? It’s not that we don’t understand what people are talking about when they describe a separate consciousness acting through the brain, it’s that there’s no good evidence for such a separation.
    Furthermore, there’s quite a bit of direct evidence against it.
    Regarding NDEs:
    The fact that many NDEs are reported is not an argument against their being discredited. The whole point is not that the experiences don’t happen, it’s that there’s no evidence whatsoever of them having anything to do with an actual afterlife.
    Your (completely unsourced) anecdote isn’t good evidence either; even assuming the report is accurate, it could easily be explained by eagerness and cold reading, without even requiring that there be any conscious conspiracy.

  38. DSimon says

    And finally regarding acupuncture: Gimme a P, gimme an L, gimme a A… everybody, say it out loud and proud, “Placebo Effect!” Woooot!

  39. DSimon says

    I would say the good evidence is that consciousness is a computational process that happens to actually be implemented only in certain biological objects.

    I don’t think this statement is justified; what is the evidence that some type of computation is a cause of consciousness, rather than merely a correlation?
    Although we’re fairly sure that the brain is responsible for consciousness, and we know that the brain does computation, it doesn’t necessarily follow that consciousness is caused by computation. I think it’s plausible that the brain causes consciousness through some non-computational process that it does in addition to all the computation.

  40. says

    Greta
    I read a book by a man named Eckhart Tolle called “The Power Of Now” This book describes the consciousness/mind connection. I based my observations in my previous post about the egos need for control on his ideas. Ironically it is the same dynamic driving religious dogmatism and atheism.
    I do not have a definition of God. There is no commonly accepted definition of God. That is why I do not even like to use the word.
    What do I believe? Perhaps even the word belief is a little presumptuous. My approach is to try and form a reasonable working hypothesis for understanding the nature of the Universe and our reality. I constantly refine my model based on new information. It is a work in progress. I have a degree in Chemistry, and I am confident that Darwins theory of evolution is correct. I have also read many books on metaphysics. There are definitely many gaps in our scientific understanding. I think about these ideas quite a lot and contemplate the nature of reality. The theory I have adopted so far is, this:-
    The Universe and everything in it were created by consciousness. I really cannot be more specific than that. This consciousness animates all life in the Universe. It is the same consciousness we all experience. It is the feeling of being alive or aware. This is contrary to the Atheistic viewpoint which I think says the Universe is here because its here, and any questions about its origins are meaningless. This is where I beg to differ from your viewpoint. Not that there is or is not a God, but that our Universe was created, and for this I can offer no proof whatsoever. I realize it is a slippery slope when you entertain ideas that cannot be scientifically proved.
    The source for my anecdote about the young lady injured in a car accident was from a Television program called “I Survived” and the name of the episode was “Death and Back”. It describes three people who died and were brought back to life, who had extraordinary experiences while they were clinically dead. It was shown on the Biography channel. Here is a link to a short video extract of that episode http://www.biography.com/video.do?name=isurvived&bcpid=1859671334&bclid=35532232001&bctid=35570650001.
    This series “I Survived” does not normally deal with cases like this.
    Finally acupuncture may well be a “placebo” effect, but it definitely helps my wife.

  41. says

    The Universe and everything in it were created by consciousness.

    What evidence do you have for this?
    I say yet again: An overwhelming body of evidence from the fields of neurology and neuropsychology strongly suggest that, whatever consciousness is, it is a biological product of the brain. Changes to the brain create changes in consciousness — sometimes drastic changes, to the point where a person’s character is unrecognizable. And using magnetic resonance imagery, changes in consciousness can be seen as taking place in the brain. (Different parts of the brain fire in different patterns when people think about different things, and take in different kinds of sensory input.)
    We don’t yet understand what consciousness is — but we sure do have a lot of evidence strongly suggesting that whatever it is, it needs a brain. And the Universe does not have a brain. It therefore is not capable of being conscious.
    This hypothesis of consciousness as a biological process has a great deal of evidence supporting it. What evidence supports your hypothesis that the Universe is conscious?

    I realize it is a slippery slope when you entertain ideas that cannot be scientifically proved.

    Then why are you standing on that slippery slope?

    It describes three people who died and were brought back to life, who had extraordinary experiences while they were clinically dead.

    First of all — they didnt die. They nearly dead. If they’d died, they wouldn’t be alive now. That’s what the word “dead” means. And second: The fact that some people experience interestingly altered states of consciousness when near death proves exactly nothing about the existence of an afterlife. It simply shows that the brain produces interestingly altered states of consciousness under certain circumstances — which we already knew.

    Finally acupuncture may well be a “placebo” effect, but it definitely helps my wife.

    Um… with all due respect, do you know what the word “placebo” means?
    If it’s a placebo effect, then it’s not helping. Other factors are helping. That’s what “placebo effect” means.

  42. says

    First of all, let’s differentiate between two separate meanings of the one word: ‘consciousness’ – one is our own sense of consciousness (like being ‘awake’) and the other is consciousness as the underlying fabric of existence.
    I’m talking about the second one. The consciousness I am talking about is not ‘thought’ – you are not your thoughts! Nor are you your emotions. Of course thoughts and feelings change with drugs, brain surgery etc… but personality is not consciousness. Consciousness is that which underlies all perception.
    If you look at the world as simply a vast material system, then you are really missing out!
    What is the energy that makes a tiny seed grow into a big tree?
    What is the force that perfectly organises the growth of a few cells from an egg and sperm into a vast human organism?
    Do you really think that you will ever be able to understand that force, that energy, by thinking about it?!
    “We don’t yet understand what consciousness is — but we sure do have a lot of evidence strongly suggesting that whatever it is, it needs a brain.”
    The brain is like a computer – it processes information. Consciousness may USE the brain, but it certainly does not depend on the brain.
    It’s true that, as you say, personality changes with changes in the brain. But personality is not consciousness.
    This idea that the brain is the center of our consciousness is outdated. We do not have only one mind – we have many. The emotional mind is not in the brain, it’s in the heart. The sexual mind is not in the brain, it’s in the pelvis. The body-mind is not in the brain, it’s in the abdomen. The only mind that is in the brain is the neo-cortex mind, which deals with language, analysis, and judgement. It’s also what produces the ego.
    I define ‘mind’ as: center of awareness. We have many centers of awareness. Consciousness is the fuel that drives all of them, and it is UNIVERSAL. It’s everywhere. It’s what people who really know god mean when they speak of god (although people who know don’t speak much), and it’s what all the great spiritual traditions (before they were hijacked and became religions) were talking about. To try to understand what consciousness is, is like trying to use a nutcracker to crack open the Moon! You are thinking with your neo-cortex mind, and consciousness is not a concept that can be analyzed. It’s a deep knowing, a wisdom, that can only be experienced.
    I write about consciousness and ego on my blog, and I hope you don’t mind me linking to it here Greta:
    http://benralston.blogspot.com/
    I’d certainly welcome your comments…
    Ben

  43. DSimon says

    Ben, when we’re talking about consciousness, we are referring both to the capacity for awareness and to the capacity for perception. Both of them are thoroughly dependent upon the proper functioning of the brain, according to every piece of good evidence we’ve got.

    What is the energy that makes a tiny seed grow into a big tree?

    The Sun (though perhaps indirectly).

    What is the force that perfectly organises the growth of a few cells from an egg and sperm into a vast human organism?

    It’s not a force, it’s a process called ontogeny.

    Do you really think that you will ever be able to understand that force, that energy, by thinking about it?!

    Yes, if that thinking is supplemented by evidence and experimentation. Do you think you’ll be able to understand them by unquestioningly following vaguely defined feelings?

  44. Bruce Gorton says

    What is the energy that makes a tiny seed grow into a big tree?

    Photosynthesis. I learned about it when I was about ten.
    And I am from a third world country.
    You can feel embarrassed now.

  45. Bruce Gorton says

    Do you really think that you will ever be able to understand that force, that energy, by thinking about it?!

    Well it sure as heck beats spouting deepities and associated bullshit about how mysterious it all is.
    Trying to figure things out put a man on the moon, wiped out polio and gave you the ability to type tripe online.
    Sitting around spouting deepities and associated bullshit gave us the dark ages.
    The more I look at it, the more I can’t tell if Ben’s post is a parody or real – Poe anyone?

  46. says

    The emotional mind is not in the brain, it’s in the heart.

    Um…
    You do understand that the heart is a muscle, don’t you? That it pumps blood? That it is not capable of supporting or experiencing emotion or consciousness?

    The only mind that is in the brain is the neo-cortex mind, which deals with language, analysis, and judgement.

    This is simply and flatly not true. There is an OVERWHELMING body of evidence showing that emotional and creative experiences and such are generated in the brain. Changes in the brain affect people’s emotional and creative lives — often drastically. (Read some Oliver Sacks to find out more about this.) Changes to the brain can make people unable to emotionally connect with the people they once loved; it can make people more musically creative essentially overnight; etc. Using magnetic resonance imagery, we can see that brain functioning looks different when people are (for instance) listening to music or thinking about someone they love than when they’re listening to something other than music or thinking about logical puzzles. (Brain functions even look different depending on which music people are listening to.)

    What is the energy that makes a tiny seed grow into a big tree?
    What is the force that perfectly organises the growth of a few cells from an egg and sperm into a vast human organism?
    Do you really think that you will ever be able to understand that force, that energy, by thinking about it?!

    Other people have handled this one beautifully, so I’m not going to, except to reiterate: Actually, we do understand these forces pretty well. We’re understanding them more and more every day. And we are understanding them, not by making up stories that we find pleasant, but by rigorously testing our ideas to see if they correspond with reality.

    Consciousness may USE the brain, but it certainly does not depend on the brain.

    And I ask yet again: What evidence do you have for this?
    There is, as I keep saying, an overwhelming body of good, solid, carefully- gathered, rigorously tested, replicated, peer-reviewed evidence to support the hypothesis that consciousness is a biological product of the brain. Do you have any solid evidence at all supporting your view that consciousness is not material? Or are you just going to keep asserting this belief over and over again, without any evidence to back it up?
    You’ve written on your blog that you think truth is entirely subjective and that truth is only what you experience. You are certainly entitled to that opinion. But it is intellectually dishonest to conclude that truth is entirely subjective… and then accuse other people of not understanding it correctly. If you don’t care whether the things you believe are true; if you’re more interested in your personal experience of reality than you are in the vastness of reality itself — and if you’re not willing to discard your beliefs when an overwhelming body of evidence contradicts them — then on what basis are you accusing atheists of “missing out” and being closed off to reality?

  47. says

    Greta
    You say
    “An overwhelming body of evidence from the fields of neurology and neuropsychology strongly suggest that, whatever consciousness is, it is a biological product of the brain.”
    Once again I would distinguish between conscious awareness and the brain functions of thought perception personality etc. These references you cite are not describing consciousness or the cause of awareness, but the effects of consciousness within the brain.
    In my first post I described the case of a young lady whos heart stopped in the operating theatre after an horrific car accident. Her consciousness left her body and floated out of the operating theatre. Eventually she saw her relatives in the waiting room in another area of the Hospital. She was able to describe a conversation which took place between her Mother and Grandnother, in which the Grandmother who was a non smoker, asked the Mother for a cigarette. The Mother confirmed this conversation did in fact take place just as her daughter described. She went on to say there was no way her daughter could have known this unless she was actually there . This was reported in an episode of the program “I Survived” called “Death and Back” which aired on the Biography channel. The reason I repeat this anecdote is because it shows that consciousness may exist independently of the brain. This story cannot be explained away by an hallucination caused by lack of oxygen. If you watch this episode you may judge for yourself. There are numerous other documented examples where consciousness existed independently of the physical body http://www.victorzammit.com/book/chapter07.html These stories cannot be refuted on the grounds that there is no scientifically acceptable explanation for them. I include a short extract from the website for your convenience. There is also a detailed Bibliography provided.
    The consistency of OBEs
    Dr Dean Sheils analyzed over a thousand studies of OBEs in seventy non-Western cultures. His conclusive results showed that whereas it was expected that there would be significant variation in the experience there was absolute consistency. Dr Sheils claimed that the results were so universal that the phenomenon had to be genuine (Lazarus 1993: 167).
    Many of the literary giants of this century publicly stated that they had an OBE: Ernest Hemingway; Tolstoy; Dostoevsky; Tennyson; Edgar Alan Poe; D H Lawrence; Virginia Woolf (Lazarus 1993:166).
    Seven hundred cases
    A most highly credible scientist, Dr Robert Crookall, analyzed over seven hundred reports of OBEs. He found that 81% of those who had experienced them had a firm conviction of life after death owing to their personal experience. What astounded Crookall, a meticulous scientist, was the consistency of the reports of OBEs coming from all over the world with near death experiences and with the communications coming from high level mediums (Crookall 1970).

  48. says

    Her consciousness left her body and floated out of the operating theatre.

    Sigh.
    No, it didn’t. She had an altered state of consciousness, in which it seemed as if her consciousness left her body and floated out of the operating theatre.
    And the fact that the mother thought there was no way her daughter could have known about this supposed conversation with the dead grandmother unless she was actually there, doesn’t mean this was actually the case. People are often not good at judging how probable events are — especially when they’re highly biased to believe something (as a person certainly would be biased towards thinking her mother’s soul was still alive). It’s entirely possible that the mother told her daughter about this conversation and forgot about it, or that her memory was otherwise faulty. Human memory is highly unreliable.
    I am not disputing that many people have unusual states of altered consciousness when they’re near death. I am simply disputing the interpretation that these experiences provide any sort of evidence of an immaterial consciousness. You can say all you want to that material explanations can’t explain these phenomena… but the fact is that they can and do. Every single time supposedly supernatural experiences (such as NDEs and OBEs) have been subjected to careful, rigorous, double-blind, placebo- controlled testing to screen out bias and wishful thinking, they have fallen apart. Check out the Center for Skeptical Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer websites for more information.

  49. DSimon says

    Harold, a belief in an afterlife is a common theme among many cultures. A consistency of OBEs to reflect that common theme isn’t an indication that an afterlife actually exists, any more than the fact that UFO sightings became more popular at around the time science fiction started getting popular indicates that aliens started visiting at around that time.

  50. DSimon says

    Greta, isn’t it a little odd (and somewhat depressing) that this exact same discussion appears to be happening on Facebook, at the same time? I notice that you’ve even cut & pasted some of your response text; I don’t blame you, when the questions are almost exactly the same.

  51. says

    DSimon,
    I really enjoyed the comparison between modern day reports of UFO abductions and ancient reports of late-night demonic visits that, iirc Carl Sagan explored at some length in Demon Haunted World.
    Anyone actually interested in learning about consciousness should check out Dennett’s works on the subject: Consciousness Explained, Elbow Room, and Freedom Evolves. The latter is the most recent and so has the most up-to-date, but is technically more about “free will” and “determinism” and so on than it is about consciousness, but it still does an excellent job explaining the massive problems with dualism.

  52. llewelly says

    Ben Ralston | June 01, 2010 at 04:46 AM:

    First of all, let’s differentiate between two separate meanings of the one word: ‘consciousness’ – one is our own sense of consciousness (like being ‘awake’) and the other is consciousness as the underlying fabric of existence.

    Re-defining “consciousness” to be “the underlying fabric of existence” is just disingenuous Humpty-Dumptyism. It may make you feel smart, but it damages your ability to communicate with others, and it damages your ability to analyze your own ideas. It’s not good for you.

    What is the energy that makes a tiny seed grow into a big tree?

    WTF?? Have you never been outside? Get out, during the daytime, when it’s not overcast, and look up, and tell me what you see in the sky. Eighty-seven thousand trillion – that’s 87,000,000,000,000,000 watts, or 117,000,000,000,000 horsepower of solar power reaches the Earth’s surface (not including what is reflected or absorbed by th atmosphere). That’s a huge amount of power. Multiply that by time and you have energy. That’s where the energy to turn a tiny seed into a big tree comes from.
    What sort of horrible cube-farm slavery are you subject to that you do not know this?

    What is the force that perfectly organises the growth of a few cells from an egg and sperm into a vast human organism?

    It’s not a force. It’s the result of billions of years of evolution. And it’s a long, long way from perfect. In the first place, many sperm are so flawed they cannot possibly form a healthy zygote when combined with a healthy egg. In the next place, close to 80% of zygotes are aborted and flushed out during the first month of gestation, usually due to developmental defects. Finally – most living people have a few minor developmental defects, and a minority have serious developmental defects.
    Please get a good book on evolutionary development – say, Sean Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful, or Freaks by Mark S. Blumberg, and read it.

    Consciousness may USE the brain, but it certainly does not depend on the brain.

    Stroke, brain trauma, toxins, and other sources of damge to brain tissue are known to alter (or even eliminate) consciousness. Therefor, consciousness does depend on the brain.

    The emotional mind is not in the brain, it’s in the heart. The sexual mind is not in the brain, it’s in the pelvis. The body-mind is not in the brain, it’s in the abdomen

    Take out the brain and all those other minds stop working. Everyone one of them depends on the brain. (And, of course, the brain depends on other organs.)

    Consciousness is the fuel that drives all of them, and it is UNIVERSAL.

    There’s no evidence that a rock is conscious.

  53. says

    What is the energy that makes a tiny seed grow into a big tree?

    Hah, this reminded me of this FSTDT classic:

    One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn’t possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it.

  54. Maria says

    *LOL*, themann :-D
    Not to mention the classic from Atheist Experience. Why don’t people die when the sun go down…

  55. Locutus7 says

    New-agers seem awfully fond of the trope “The Wisdom of the Ancients.” That millenia ago, tribal primitives in loincloths were more knowledgeable than us about consciousness, cosmology, and the human condition.
    And that precious wisdom is lost to all but a very few today, and those few usually appear on Oprah to hawk their books.
    It is almost like new-agers believe that human knowledge works backwards; that we were really smart and over the milenia have become less wise, less knowledgeable.
    Okay, after watching Fox news, I’m thinking maybe they are on to something.

  56. DA says

    Locutus, I know exactly what you mean. I think the reason might be a little less crazy though; first, it’s a very common idea, across cultures, to believe in degeneration of society. You read stuff from like, any historical period in any civilization, and you are always bombarded with crap about how good things USED to be. The Greco-Roman civilizations and ancient Chinese were both particularly bad about it. Also, conversely, the true men (and women, but unfortunately we mostly know the men) of genius in antquity were really incredible. We simply don’t have anyone today who can make the profound leaps of intuitition and world-shaking discoveries that occured in the ancient world, or people with really advanced moral vision that become household names. Anyone with a three digit IQ and a High School Education understands the world better than Epicurus ever could have, but holy shit, what an amazing mind!

  57. Locutus7 says

    I agree, DA. My point would be that, Yes, there were some geniuses such as Aristotle and Epicurus, etc., but we know about them and their thinking, AND it has been incorporated into our corpus of knowledge (unfortunately, even the flawed parts).
    The thrust of the new age movement, however, seems to be that there are ancients with knowledge that is both profound and unknown to society, and for rather large sums of money you, too, can join the Rosicrucians or mind-meld with the Atlanteans and gain this secret wisdom.

  58. Gaffster says

    Hmmm… interesting. I guess I see things a little different, as a person of faith. I’m a Christian, maybe even a progressive one, but:
    1: Evolution guided by God.
    I don’t believe this.
    2: An immaterial soul that animates human consciousness.
    I don’t believe this.
    3: A sentient universe.
    I don’t believe this.
    I realize I’m a minority of sorts: a non-theistic Christian. But, with 2.1 billion Christians, it’s too easy to reduce them all to a set list of propositions.

  59. Nathanael says

    “if it wasn’t reasonable of me to insist that I was right if someone else claimed that 2 + 2 = 5 and I know it’s 4? She thought it would be wrong of me to do that, because no matter how right I am (and she admitted I was) it’s TRUE FOR THEM!”
    Heh. My response to THAT one would be “I’d sure be able to get a lot of money out of them if they believed that. If I cared about them wouldn’t I want them to stop being a sucker?”
    That often sidetracks the conversation into whether insane religious beliefs make you a sucker, which I never was any good at, but Greta Christina has an entire post about how they *do*.

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