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Monday, December 14, A.D. 2009
Is God an Accident?

I am hopelessly behind the times. Only this past year did I learn of the latest reductionist explanation of religion, wherein the nearly universal belief in the divine is dismissed as an accident of human evolution. The reductionist argument basically holds that it has been so vitally important for human beings to distinguish agents from things that men developed their sensitivity to agency too much. We humans tend to project agency onto all sorts of things that have none and even onto non-entities. The survival advantage in being able distinguish sentient beings from rocks led to the tendency to see spirits everywhere. It is a mere accident of evolution, then, that we are religious.

Last week, I read a four year old article by Paul Bloom in The Atlantic about this theory, “Is God an Accident?” Even though I do not find the argument ultimately convincing, I must credit Bloom for a good read. Why can’t American discourse exist at such a level? Let the secularists put forth a rational and honest Bloom, and the theists will offer Platinga or some such chap. We the audience public may actually learn something.

Anyway, I recommend Bloom’s article, which I find quite interesting and fair. My favorite part is when Bloom recounts the fascinating research that cognative scientists are doing with babies. When scientists actually do science, it is indeed a glorious affair. However, natural science is a species of philosophy, and it is natural (as I affirm teleology) for seekers of truth to search for deeper answers to underlying questions. Unfortunately, these intelligent folks are not well equipped to address metaphysical questions, and I believe that is why they fail to appreciate the problems of their reductionism.

For example, one of Bloom’s main arguments is that through evolution, human beings have become innately dualistic. We recognize from our earliest stages of development the difference between the life of the mind and the mechanics of lifeless things. What the Kantians call the noumenal and the phenomenal are basic insights into how we experience reality. I think that a sensible philosophical approach would have us accept the legitimacy of this distinction. The mind, the will, the realm of the spirit really is of a different order than the mechanistic cause and effect world of billiard balls in motion. We must see the difference, intuitively and rationally, as reason will not permit a sane person to understand reality otherwise. Yet, it seems that the reductionists hold that such an insight is merely an illusion that accidentally resulted from some adaptations in the human mind that make survival and reproduction more likely.

Perhaps, I misunderstand the subtlety of their argument, but it appears that the reductionists fail the test of retortion. I have mentioned this basic argument before, but it cannot be repeated enough in this twilight age of reason. The reductionists offer their scientific theory as an explanation of how the world (well, in this case, the human mind) works. They propose a theory as true. Yet, they dismiss the foundations of human rationality—including the basic perception that mind and the mindless operate according to very different principles—as accidents of evolution quite unrelated to truth value. We hold such intuitions—and our reason operates thus—not because such are true but because such give us a survival advantage. I wonder if the reductionists’ dismissal of human rationality undermines their own attempts at explanation. They are not simple relativists; so, maybe they pass the test of not refuting themselves. However, I do not know how one can salvage human wisdom once one dismisses such fundamental insights. As with the nominalists, how does one proceed to build castles of philosophical systems in the air after one has destroyed their possible foundations? Epistemological violence leads to metaphysical nihilism.

Bloom offers as an argument the following remarkable passage:

This notion of an immaterial soul potentially separable from the body clashes starkly with the scientific view. For psychologists and neuroscientists, the brain is the source of mental life; our consciousness, emotions, and will are the products of neural processes. As the claim is sometimes put, The mind is what the brain does. I don’t want to overstate the consensus here; there is no accepted theory as to precisely how this happens, and some scholars are skeptical that we will ever develop such a theory. But no scientist takes seriously Cartesian dualism, which posits that thinking need not involve the brain. There is just too much evidence against it.

I always think back to the analogy of language when I encounter these ideas. We cannot reduce the meaning of a word to its letters or to the sounds that it takes to speak the word. Nonetheless, a word cannot exist as a written word without letters or as a spoken word without sounds. Reality ought not to be reduced to its necessary conditions. It may be correct that the material structure of the brain makes thought possible, but thought transcends its origin. I accept as a possibility that human consciousness may only occur to or with embodied human beings. However, even as bodies with brains, we attain the spiritual and immaterial through our very thought. Having thought thoughts, we know that order and the innumerable intelligible qualities that we witness cannot be reduced to a jumbling of particulars with no evidence of the transcendent. We see God when we see the world because we see the world. While our experience does not rationally justify belief in the afterlife, it does validate the distinction between thought and the world. In thinking, we noetically reach beyond the limits of time and space. We know, in thinking, that we are truly more than just bodies. Whether such existence outlasts the body is another matter. It remains that case that we are more than flesh and blood.

Bloom and his comrades of the material mind find it conclusive that one can have design without a designer, and they believe that evolution proves it.

Sometimes there really are signs of nonrandom and functional design. We are not being unreasonable when we observe that the eye seems to be crafted for seeing, or that the leaf insect seems colored with the goal of looking very much like a leaf. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins begins The Blind Watchmaker by conceding this point: “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Dawkins goes on to suggest that anyone before Darwin who did not believe in God was simply not paying attention.

Darwin changed everything. His great insight was that one could explain complex and adaptive design without positing a divine designer. Natural selection can be simulated on a computer; in fact, genetic algorithms, which mimic natural selection, are used to solve otherwise intractable computational problems. And we can see natural selection at work in case studies across the world, from the evolution of beak size in Galápagos finches to the arms race we engage in with many viruses, which have an unfortunate capacity to respond adaptively to vaccines.

I marvel at how clever creatures can draw explanatory principles from the empty well of chance. Chance does not explain; chance merely signifies the complicated levels on which intentional agents experience reality. With apologies to Aristotle, allow me to talk about my fictional pals, Bob and Matt. Bob the bartender owes Matt the Maytag repairman money that he intends to pay him when he sees him again. One day, Bob goes to Best Buy to buy his belle, Betty Sue, a microwave oven. Matt happens to be at Best Buy trying to catch up on the latest developments in the laundry machine trade. Bob sees Matt and pays him. We can say that Bob’s paying Matt when he did was the result of chance. There was agency by both men, but the result of their intended ends was not intended by either one of them. Chance explains an element in the story.

Yet, note that chance only indicates how the intended actions of two agents interelated in a wider theater than their own perspectives. When we consider a theater as wide as reality, what role does chance play? Is it not simply what we might call the order of being’s manifesting itself in motion? When people speak of chance, they often mean random and unpredictable. Yet, we observe everywhere the tendencies of nature and the probability of phenomena that betray an order. The universe has a structure that is intelligible. It has patterns that human reason perceives and understands. When we attribute causality to chance, we simply admit that we remain ignorant of the whole as was Bob of all the facts. Yet, Bob and Matt both acted as agents with will and ends, and they acted so in an orderly universe. Likewise, evolutionary biology does not show that order develops from chaos. Rather, evolutionary biology recognizes that the particular qualities—the particular structure of our universe—gives rise to the multiplicity of life as we know it. There is no way to pass the buck of design to nothing. As the ancients knew, there must be an uncaused cause. When, in thought, we encounter the wondrous beauty and unity of the intelligible world, we recognize such a source. For Bloom, this recognition is an illusion. It is strange to consider how much effort the blinded put forth in order to remain in darkness.

Bloom’s strongest point, in my opinion, is that the human mind sees design where there is arguably none. We see patterns and qualities in artworks that were designed to be random (an odd cultural phenomenon, to be sure). Personally, I know that my mind sees faces in almost any grouping of lines and colors. Couldn’t it be that we simply project meaning onto this meaningless world?

As previously argued, I do not think that we can undermine human rationality in such a severe way and still maintain knowledge in any sense. There is another explanation for the human mind’s readiness to attribute order, meaning, and patterns to “randomness.” It could be that we do see such examples of order, meaning, and patterns in what were intended by their craftsmen to be random and meaninglessness because they actually do instantiate such order, meaning, and patterns. Hume may be a reductionist nominalist, but his theory of mental association is quite insightful. We understand many phenomena by relating them to memories of other phenomena. I do not think that we can reduce our ideas to such, but that is not to say that such does not occur in our minds. Of course, we learn and remember based on experience and association. The man who harbors a lifelong disgust of Cheerios because of an unfortunate breakfast incident in his youth shows how strong such associations can be. Thus, clouds may appear to us as palaces or dragons—or at least cotton balls for the unimaginative—because the clouds resemble such things in certain respects. Our minds do not thus lie or falsify information; for the qualities that cause us to see the resemblance are truly present in the clouds, such as certain shapes, sizes, and relations. We only fall short of truth when such resemblance tricks us into assessing something incorrectly. For instance, I may mistake a mannequin for a real man because of its resemblance to a real man. Such errors ought not to cause us to question the power of human thought; rather, they are good reminders about the limitations of empirical evidence.

So, I recommend Bloom’s article, but the ease of intelligent men in making intellectual errors continues to baffle me. Do materialists really find such arguments convincing, or are they trying to dismiss their own awareness of the transcendent? With the latest reductionist theory, these materialists may soothe their minds by explaining away their suppressed religious tendencies as natural, homo sapiens normative, irrational impulses. Then, there will be no need to think more about the contradictory stances that one takes when he reduces reality to a level that does not even allow for his act of intellectual reduction.

Posted by Joseph on Monday, December 14, A.D. 2009
Philosophy | EpistemologyMetaphysicsPermalink

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