Quantcast

«

»

Feb 23 2012

Why I am an atheist – Mike Huben

At age 14, I was sitting in the St. Pius the 10th Catholic Church, and it occurred to me that the apostolic succession and pretty much all of Catholicism could really be founded on a game of telephone.

We all know of the game of telephone: an original message is passed on from person to person, mutating in amusing ways both accidentally and deliberately. Stories of Jesus could have started false (You should have seen the miracle he worked in the previous town!) or could mutate and optimize to most effectively dazzle audiences, even during JC’s lifetime. Not to mention the decades after until they were written down.

And now, 40+ years later, I realize (thanks to Pharyngula) that “provenance” is the word I have needed to describe my path through skepticism and atheism (or agnosticism.)

From 14 to 24, I didn’t encounter any skeptical or atheist literature. I argued vigorously with quite a number of creationists online, and thought that as an evolutionary biology student that I was pretty hot stuff. Until eventually some creationist (with more than the standard two neurons to rub together) claimed I was making up evolutionary just-so stories based on my authority and nothing else. And galling as it was, I had to admit it to myself. I had a provenance problem. But the bright side was that I looked at Creationists, and saw that their provenance problem was much worse and incurable. I could drop a few of my made-up arguments, limit myself to published science and identifying creationist fallacies, and I was fine.

One of the more noisome religious arguments I encountered was the accusation that science was due to pride, while religious believers were humble. I developed my own response based on provenance. Scientists, I would say, are the humble ones. Because not only must they restrict their claims to those based on evidence, but it must also be evidence that anyone else can confirm. The religious are the prideful ones: claiming that their prophets are the only ones with access to the truth. It’s a very common trick to accuse your opponent of your own sins, and thus one of the first we should expect from the religious.

Provenance also calls most philosophy into question. 99%+ of it is crap, for the simple reason that the provenance of its assumptions is unsupportable. A priori knowledge indeed! You don’t have to look far for “gut feelings” a la Steven Colbert. My favorite recent example of appeal to gut feelings is the first clause of the first sentence of the preface to Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”: “Individuals have rights….” That’s straight from his gut, an assumption of Natural Rights. He might as well be saying that individuals have souls for all the evidence he lacks. Some more modern philosophy, such as that of Daniel Dennett, does better by starting with reasoning based on the sciences, especially the biological sciences.

I used to think I was scientific and rational. Now that I know a little more about where my knowledge comes from, I know that I cannot depend on it without confirmation. When we start learning, we accept uncritically. After a while, we do start to test our knowledge for inconsistency and coherence with our own observations. But there is such a huge welter of knowledge that we cannot take the time to test it all, nor to re-derive it for ourselves. Imagine having to re-derive all the mathematics you learn in school. Mathematics that took the efforts of hundreds of mathematicians over thousands of years to create. So the vast majority of our knowledge is accepted on faith. What sense of “rational” is that? Rational turns out to be a Humpty-Dumpty word: it means whatever we want it to when we want to bash somebody else for not being rational. Is scientific any better? Maybe. Scientific provenance has to do with intersubjective confirmation of observations and how they match models or theories. At various times I have confused this with tribal loyalty to scientific knowledge. But very little of my life is actually concerned with doing science: usually I tend to use science as a censor for claims that I judge “unscientific”, such as homeopathy. Why do I trust science to be correct for such use? Not because I have confirmed all of the science I have learned, but because when ever I have tested scientific knowledge, it has stood the test of intersubjectivity. I have recapitulated the origins of the knowledge, the provenance, on occasion. So if I want to characterize myself as scientific or rational, it is at best relative to someone who is less so in a particular field.

Questioning the provenance of knowledge is perilous. After you discard the baby falsehoods such as gods and the rest of the supernatural and fictional crud, you quickly discover that pretty much everything else is also built on a foundation of sand. There is no ultimate truth or reality that we can’t question. We are left without even a foundation of sand: we are floating. What is left is reliable knowledge: knowledge that we can confirm intersubjectively, such as science. We can assemble that knowledge into a consilient raft without a foundation. That’s plenty to construct glorious social concepts of reality. We don’t need illusory anchors such as gods or religious beliefs: fictional whimseys can be enjoyable, but we don’t need to take them seriously to deal with the real world.

Mike Huben
United States

20 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    andrewryan

    “From 14 to 24, I didn’t encounter any skeptical or atheist literature. I argued vigorously with quite a number of creationists online, and thought that as an evolutionary biology student that I was pretty hot stuff.”

    Out of interest, given that the author is 54, doesn’t this mean he was arguing with Christians online around the early 1980s? Isn’t that quite early?

  2. 2
    Glen Davidson

    What is left is reliable knowledge: knowledge that we can confirm intersubjectively, such as science. We can assemble that knowledge into a consilient raft without a foundation.

    Not really. Most working knowledge requires foundations, which is why we have mathematics, physics, and theories such as evolution. Plus, philosophy must consider what comes prior to science and even math, like observation and logic, although most of the good stuff has pretty much been done by now.

    The rather set ways in which we experience and know the world, quantitatively and qualitatively, are largely what are the foundations upon which knowledge is built. These, though, are not themselves so much built upon any sort of “foundation,” but are evolved ways of dealing with the world. Hence the need to acknowledge that in the end it is “intersubjectivity” that makes ideas credible.

    Glen Davidson

  3. 3
    julietdefarge

    I assume you were using the bulleting board system in the ’80s. While most of that early material is lost, those wishing to get a feel for the flavor of religious v atheist debate back then could check out a book “Holy War Online A Debate in Cyberspace,” about a thread on AOL message board that got pretty heated.

    You have a good response to the alleged humility of the religious.

  4. 4
    'Tis Himself

    Rational turns out to be a Humpty-Dumpty word: it means whatever we want it to when we want to bash somebody else for not being rational.

    There’s a similar problem with “skeptic.”

  5. 5
    Pierce R. Butler

    Provenance also calls most philosophy into question. 99%+ of it is crap…

    The two best projects within modern philosophy are epistemology and ethics. Mike Huben’s take on the “provenance” of facts/opinions show he has an excellent grasp of the former; his concession to his anonymous opponent that his own arguments had flaws indicates he’s doing pretty well on the latter.

  6. 6
    municipalis

    Provenance also calls most philosophy into question. 99%+ of it is crap, for the simple reason that the provenance of its assumptions is unsupportable. A priori knowledge indeed! You don’t have to look far for “gut feelings” a la Steven Colbert. My favorite recent example of appeal to gut feelings is the first clause of the first sentence of the preface to Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”: “Individuals have rights….” That’s straight from his gut, an assumption of Natural Rights. He might as well be saying that individuals have souls for all the evidence he lacks

    I have a profound unease with this line – almost relativsit – line of thinking. Since you mentioned ‘natural rights’, a friend of mine typed out something quite thoughtful on the subject several years ago, and I’ll post the introduction:

    All philoso­phies stand on choices that can­not be jus­ti­fied by proof. Any ama­teur Socrates can demon­strate that I can’t prove that two and two are four, or that free­dom is desir­able, or even that I exist. Ulti­mately, ideas, no mat­ter how pas­sion­ately held, rest on assump­tions that can­not be known with absolute cer­tainty. It does not fol­low from this that we should avoid act­ing on sig­nif­i­cant assump­tions, or that we should aban­don the analy­sis of ideas. If I’m stand­ing in the mid­dle of the street, and see a twelve-ton truck hurtling in my direc­tion, I don’t stand there, par­a­lyzed by epis­te­mo­log­i­cal uncer­tainty. I jump out of its way. Later, seated on a com­fort­able couch, with a cold beer in my hand, I might indulge in the lux­ury of reflect­ing that the truck may have been an illu­sion, or that I can­not prove with cer­tainty that being hit by a truck is worse than not being hit by a truck. All of us must choose our basic assump­tions, either in a con­scious process, guided by rea­son, or unconsciously.

    This is a med­i­ta­tion on democ­racy, and democ­racy only becomes a coher­ent idea when it rests on the assump­tion that human beings have rights. This, in turn, rests on the assump­tion that there is a moral dimen­sion to the uni­verse. Out­side of these assump­tions, polit­i­cal thought becomes arbi­trary. If indi­vid­ual human beings have no rights, then what­ever hap­pens is self-sufficiently jus­ti­fied, and any state of affairs that human beings find them­selves in is as desir­able as any other. Effec­tively, if there is no moral dimen­sion to the uni­verse, then it is a mat­ter of indif­fer­ence what hap­pens. Events just come to pass ― say, the Holo­caust, or the Slave Trade, or Abu Graib ― and there is no point in dis­cussing them. It is point­less to seek jus­tice or defy injus­tice, because the very idea of jus­tice depends on the assump­tion of a moral­ity that rests upon some­thing more sub­stan­tial than cus­tom or whim. In the absence of moral choice, peo­ple seek some sense of order in human affairs through some amoral orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple. Loy­alty to a group, obe­di­ence to author­ity, or the famil­iar­ity of rit­ual become sub­sti­tutes for eth­i­cal conscience.

    The unavoid­able choice that a demo­c­rat makes is to assume that the uni­verse has a moral aspect, just as it has a math­e­mat­i­cal aspect, and an aspect of mat­ter and energy ― no mat­ter how hard to grasp these aspects might be. In the Democrat’s view, the demands of eth­i­cal con­science overule loy­alty to groups, obe­di­ence to author­ity, or ritual.

  7. 7
    jaybee

    The author makes some great points that I also find true for me. But science isn’t about absolute certainty, and not everything needs to be, or can be, proved with the rigor of a geometric proof. It is OK that I haven’t personally verified all scientific knowledge for myself. Even if we are all just simulations in some grand video game, embedded in a very different reality, all that matters to me is what works for this reality. The scientific method has repeatedly proved itself to be useful, and that is good enough. Religion … not so much.

  8. 8
    dami

    You *can* actually prove rigorously from scratch all the mathematics you learned at school. Takes about one year of maths-only college courses (I had a lot of it with proofs even in school, though). Still, your argument that one has to trust others makes perfect sense – I do trust engineers whenever I take a car, or a plane.

    Hilariously, Kant’s argument for the existence of “synthetic a priori” truths was based on Euclidean geometry, which actually is *not* rigorous, as proven at the time Kant was writing by the development of non_Euclidean geometries. Euclid was made rigorous by Hilbert around 1900, and he had to add a bunch of axioms.

  9. 9
    mikmik

    This is, by far, the most enjoyable and interesting post I’ve read in this ‘Why I’m an Atheist’ series. Well, ‘by far’ might not be accurate because lot’s of these are great.

    Mike Huben, I’ve only been getting involved in philosophy lately but the reverse engineering(lol just sounds funny) of what constitutes truthful knowledge in order to arrive at a rigorously logical foundation for determining the validity of our beliefs, that you’ve done, is spectacular.

    What is left is reliable knowledge: knowledge that we can confirm intersubjectively, such as science. We can assemble that knowledge into a consilient raft without a foundation. That’s plenty to construct glorious social concepts of reality. We don’t need illusory anchors such as gods or religious beliefs: fictional whimseys can be enjoyable, but we don’t need to take them seriously to deal with the real world.

    This is a problematic statement, no matter how much I agree with it. You are still left with the problem of what is whimsical, and what isn’t, when it comes to morality and ethics – ie. what are values are based on.

    We can build a bridge between objective reality and subjective reality that is solid. The religious build rafts. The building blocks of the bridge … well, all sorts of analogies can be employed but, suffice to say, a bridge is long lasting and solid where-as a raft is easily upset.

    In other words, there is subjective reality, and objective, but never the twain shall meet.
    How they interact – aye, there’s the rub.

    (Where do I come up with this shite?!)

  10. 10
    echidna

    Science is consistent, with the facts as we know them and itself. Religion can make no such claim. That’s enough for me.

  11. 11
    chrisdevries

    Regarding morals, and the claim that the universe has a moral dimension, of course different perspectives on morality depend on untestable assumptions. In my moral view, decisions affecting the happiness and suffering of conscious animals are moral decisions. The assumption I am making here is that we should value the well-being of conscious animals. I cannot prove that the suffering of an organism who can feel pain and has self-awareness is bad, nor can I say that efforts to reduce this suffering are moral. But if I start with a foundation that says we should value the well-being of conscious animals and strive to improve it, that this, in fact, is the noblest of goals, then I can judge all decisions on a spectrum of how well they serve this goal. Of course, decisions may both increase and decrease the well-being of different animals; decisions may also decrease well-being in the short-term and increase it in the long-term. This makes this a complex way to judge morality, but the more we learn about our brains, the better we will understand well-being, and the more equipped we will be to demonstrate to the world that just because atheists don’t get their morality from authority does not mean we are forever condemned to the murky swamp of relativism.

  12. 12
    Azuma Hazuki

    Given all this, I understand–I really do–why so many of the more intelligent Christians turn to what is essentially Calvinism: they are looking for an epistemological anchor.

    I sympathize, too, as someone else who hates uncertainty. But I also agree that we can construct proofs within our own spheres of repeatable (that is, empirically-testable) knowledge, and within those spheres, we can indeed dispose of the “baby falsehoods” like gods…because they were created within that same sphere.

    It took this realization to get me off the Abrahamic religions for good and it’s wonderful to see it put so well by someone writing in here :) I think this is my favorite of the “WIaaA” series too.

  13. 13
    'Tis Himself

    I assume you were using the bulleting board system in the ’80s.

    If this is the Mike Huben of Critiques of Libertarianism then he has been around since infonet.

  14. 14
    jeffj

    Is this the ‘Critiques of Libertarianism’ Mike Huben? The dig at Nozick suggests it is. If so, how cool that he also reads Pharyngula! Worlds collide!

  15. 15
    mikmik

    @jeffj – I think you’re correct. Ultra cool!

  16. 16
    mikehuben

    andrewryan @ 1:
    I was on the PLATO system in 1975, which had 500 graphical terminals networked internationally on a CDC Cyber computer. They had the equivalent of internet chat rooms, email, and a little later the equivalent of usenet newsgroups.

    mikelaing @ 9:
    I accept the fact that people have values and objectives, which are inter-related and multi-causal. But I like the fact/value distinction. I view morality as a fancy way of stating preferences for certain values and objectives. I am a relativist: I don’t view relativism as a “murky swamp” but rather as an ecology of competing memes.

    jeffi @ 13:
    Yes, that’s me. I’ve been reading Pharyngula for years now. If you’d like to read more about me and what I think, I have a modest wiki at http://huben.us/.

  17. 17
    mikmik

    I believe there is a fundamental morality, or at least an objective one based on two truths: the universe exists, and our reality is defined by the principle of cause and effect.

    I believe our values are extensions of fundamental reality. Physicals laws drive the creation of more complex systems; only existence has meaning; existence is preserved ie. matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed; complex structures are more meaningful; blah blah blah, I still have problems expressing a couple of others, but… I’ve considered that ‘spirituality’ is connection to fundamental meaning and understanding of reality, including empathy, and that when Christians say that man is created in god’s image, that means as a creator. Fundamentally, creation is moral, and destruction is immoral, and co-operation is imperative, and understanding truth is mandatory.
    Thus, my allusion to Hamlet’s Soliloquy.

    As usual, I’m sure this has been covered to death somewhere, but I’m unaware of any specific claims for a fundamental, scientific basis for morality. Intersubjective verification – science is the blueprints for the bridge which connects subjective experience to objective/shared reality which is spirituality in a nutshell; connection.

  18. 18
    briantarr

    excellent! i don’t mind admitting i had to check the dictionary a couple o’ times on this one — which is one of the reasons i loved it so much. ;)

  19. 19
    mikehuben

    I must say I am shocked by all the positive feedback and polite questioning. I thought we atheists ate our own? :-)

    Glen Davidson @2:
    The problem with metaphors is that they are easily interpreted more than one way. What I meant by foundations is the archaic fictional ideas of universal “truth”, as opposed to modern ideas of measurement and pragmatic choice. I characterize the latter as floating. Of course, we could also point out that foundations of stone are also floating on continents which compose the crust of our earth, as a way of using metaphors to undermine old metaphorical ideas of foundations.

    municipalis @6:
    The place in that passage where I disagree is: “democ­racy only becomes a coher­ent idea when it rests on the assump­tion that human beings have rights.” I consider that to be an example of what Daniel Dennett calls a skyhook, a philosophical shortcut to complexity by assumption of the unobservable. It is an error of early liberalism, when fictional rights of kings were countered by fictional rights of men. Instead, I found my ideas on the observable fact that people have values that they act upon. This leads to the emergent property of institutions (a crane), which evolve diversely to create legal rights and democracy.

    dami @8:
    Yes, you can recapitulate the proofs. But that’s not what I meant by rederive: I meant that you cannot invent all that mathematics for yourself independently. I like your point about Kant.

    mikelaing @9
    “You are still left with the problem of what is whimsical, and what isn’t, when it comes to morality and ethics – ie. what are values are based on.”
    As far as I can see, values are memetic and can evolve in any direction not immediately constrained by biology and social institutions. If I privilege some values, it is because they support my own values, directly or indirectly, in the very complex social institutions we occupy. Thus I view morality as consisting of very local adaptations to temporary social conditions. Pretty much the same way I view most species, as being temporary adaptations to local conditions (in geologic time.) You can ask “what is the true morality”, and it is just as foolish as asking which one out of the diversity of life is the true species? So in general I think that morality is a statement of preferences and a stratagem for achieving them.

  20. 20
    mikmik

    mikehuben says:


    25 February 2012 at 6:22 am

    I must say I am shocked by all the positive feedback and polite questioning. I thought we atheists ate our own? :-)

    Sometimes we practice tough love, but an underlying respect for our mutual empirically based values and humanitarian ideas confers a lot of blog cred around here :)

    As far as I can see, values are memetic and can evolve in any direction not immediately constrained by biology and social institutions. If I privilege some values, it is because they support my own values, directly or indirectly, in the very complex social institutions we occupy. Thus I view morality as consisting of very local adaptations to temporary social conditions.

    I agree, but feel/think there is an underlying impetus towards co-operation at play.

    You can ask “what is the true morality”, and it is just as foolish as asking which one out of the diversity of life is the true species? So in general I think that morality is a statement of preferences and a stratagem for achieving them.

    Aye, but there is an underlying principle, or value, to local adaptation, and that is a common purpose to preserve life, starting with our own.

    The problem with metaphors is that they are easily interpreted more than one way.

    Ye-up! But they are sometimes the simplest way to frame our subjectively formed, abstract ideas, in an objective, intersubjectively verifiable manner. ;)

    I really very strongly believe that our value systems, or ethics, directly parallel the principles of evolution, which you’ve illuminated with your ‘any one species can’t claim to be the true species’ analogy. And I very strongly believe that our behavior and learning parallels the fundamental nature of reality in that (i)cause and effect, and (ii)existence or non-existence, are the fundamental foundation, or description, of reality – from which all else can be extrapolated.
    Well, one more(iii): Cogito ergo sum.

    These three are indubitable.

Comments have been disabled.