Could Atheists please clarify what they mean? November 4, 2012Posted by ubi dubium in Brain Glitches, Responses.
Tags: atheism, Cognitive Biases, religion
In response to a question posted by Mark Silversides at http://blog.marksilversides.com/2012/10/15/could-atheists-please-clarify-what-they-mean/
For me, clarifying what I mean about atheism really has to start with clarifying definitions. People throw around words like “god” and “supernatural” all the time, but mean so many things by them that any discussion often turns into a bewildering mess of shifting goalposts.
So – first, a “being”. For this I will use the definition:
Something that has the ability to think, is self-aware, and has the ability to interact deliberately with something other than itself.
A computer thinks, but is not self-aware, so computers are not beings (yet). An oyster can interact with its environment, but I’m pretty sure does not think, so not oysters. A rock might theoretically be self-aware and able to think, but if all it’s capable of doing is sitting there being a rock, I’m not going to call it a being. Under “beings” I’d definitely put humans, the other great apes, dolphins, and any other animal that passes the mirror test. This is not an either-or category; there are lots of living things that somewhat fit this description. Cats, for instance.
“Supernatural”: our natural world is composed of a four-dimensional space-time continuum, containing matter, energy, physical forces, and the consistent ways those things behave, which we describe with natural laws. For something to be “supernatural”, it would need to, in whole or in part, consist of something other than that.
Now a “god” is trickier. Thinking about all the hundreds of gods that I’m familiar with that humans have at one time or another believed in, I’ll go with this definition:
A “god” is a supernatural being who
- Has the ability to interact in some way with our physical universe
- Is interested in the affairs of humans on this planet
- Is capable of communicating in some way with humans
- Does actually communicate with humans
- Has opinions about the things humans should or should not do
- Is able to affect our universe in ways that are not consistent with observed physical laws
If a proposed being is missing any of the above qualities, I don’t think we are really talking about a “god”. (I’m open to modifying this definition, as long as the final definition still encompasses most or all of the “gods” that humans have believed in over the ages.)
So when I say “There is probably no god” I mean that I have seen insufficient evidence for me to believe in the existence of any being meeting the above definition.
Sure there might exist an ultra-powerful being with no interest in or interaction with humans at all. I might describe such a being as a “god” if I ever met one, but that sort of a god is not relevant to most of the god-beliefs held by humans. When someone is trying to persuade me of the existence of their “god” they usually don’t mean a vague deistic being with no relevance to our lives. (I also don’t see the point in holding a “belief” in such a deistic god, if there is no evidence for one existing, and no actual benefit to holding that belief. If someone finds a belief in such a being comforting, I rarely challenge them on it, since it’s not the believers in a deistic god that are trying to make their religious beliefs into public policy.)
I’m not clear on what you mean by god being “personal”. Do you mean having a self-aware intelligence? Or behaving like a “person” with desires and emotions? Or do you mean a being that is interested in interacting directly with humans, as in the oft-quoted “close personal relationship with jesus”? Or in the sense of being private to an individual, as in “That’s personal”. So this is a point that could use some further clarification on your part.
As to the fascination with neuroscience, that’s an easy one to explain for me (and it has nothing to do with “the ghost in the machine” or anything like that). I have come to the conclusion that all gods are human creations. But there has never been a culture found without supernatural beliefs. Every primitive tribe we have researched has had some kind of religion. So there must be something about the way the human brain functions that leads us toward superstition, leads us to creating gods, leads us to organizing those beliefs into a religion. So my question is “what is it about human minds that makes religion inevitable?” (And the secondary question of “…and can anything be done about it?”)
I’ve done a lot of reading on this subject, and found writings by Michael Shermer and Valerie Tarico to have been especially helpful in working out the answers to this for myself. That led me to a fascination with all types of cognitive biases, and why we might have them, and how they affect our lives. Our brains don’t work half as well as we think they do, but the more we understand this, the more we can catch our own shortcuts and mistakes and become better critical thinkers.