The first review of my talk yesterday is in! Too bad it is from somebody who wasn’t there and who is a world-class fool. Yes, it’s Michael Egnor again, and he’s got a lengthy post up with the pretext of giving me advice on future talks, but is really an attempt to preempt my arguments and chide me for my crazy materialist position. He doesn’t even come close to any of my arguments, and he makes false assumptions all over the place about what I and the audience think. I’m used to straw men from creationists, but this is ridiculous.
Here’s what I actually said at the talk.
The first half was about the successes of the materialist paradigm. We really have made great advances in understanding how neurons and small networks of neurons work, and in understanding fairly big picture features of the overall organization of the brain. Yet I also said there are huge parts of brain function we do not understand, and even outright admitted that we can’t positively disprove anything like a “soul” or whatever. However, there are two things we do know: 1) the physical/material approach of neuroscience works and has accomplished great improvements in our understanding, so anyone who wants to advocate something else needs to demonstrate some kind of pragmatic utility to their approach that will complement or improve neuroscience, and 2) any metaphysical/spiritual theory of the mind must accommodate existing knowledge, and apologists for ghosts have not done so. I’d like to know how the spirit does its work — does it phosphorylate CREB proteins, or does it toggle ion channels?
The second half tried to consider some of the hypotheses for the evolution of religious thinking, but really, was more of a discussion of my own ideas about evolution of complex behavioral attributes. I spent a fair amount of time on a basic concept that I see misused often: function vs. adaptation. Many of the books on the evolution of religion out there are basically catalogs of cultures throughout history that have shown the utility of religion, which I don’t deny. I also asked the audience of godless atheists if they knew of any advantages to religious belief: Crazy Egnor would probably be shocked to learn that they had no problem listing quite a few good things about religion. However, my point was that coming up with functions is not equivalent to demonstrating an adaptive history of selection. I reject the notion that showing that someone has found a use for a behavior means that that behavior has been the product of selection. Showing that something is the product of selection is very, very hard, and it has not been done for religion.
My own argument is that there probably are heritable behaviors that have been subject to selection, but that they are much more general than the religious impulse — socially advantageous basic cognitive substrates like empathy or inference of intent — and that religion is simply one natural (and erroneous!) derivative of these lower level properties of the brain. My final message was that religion is not a necessary outcome of those properties, and that the challenge for atheism was to build social structures that were as good at addressing those more basic (and actually desirable) features of humanity as the bogus interpretations of religion.
Go ahead, take a look at Egnor’s freaky imagined version of an atheist talk and my summary of the real one. Just keep in mind that I was actually at the talk, and that I’m not a deluded kook. That’ll help you figure out which one of us actually has any credibility.