Answering More Questions for Atheists

Michael Egnor, a creationist working for the Discovery Institute, has posted a list of questions for atheists (HT: Sandwalk). Ironically, the post which contains the questions has comments disabled, so it’s impossible to answer Egnor directly. This is probably another piece of evidence for whether whether creationists actually want answers to the questions they ask.

Be that as it may, I’ve decided to write answers to Egnor’s questions. He does say “I want to learn more about what New Atheists really believe”, and I see no harm in taking him at his word, at least for now. The original questions are in bold, followed by my answers.

Why is there anything?

Although this sentence is syntactically valid, I’m not convinced it expresses a meaningful proposition.

What caused the Universe?

The universe as we presently observe it began with the Big Bang. The cause or causes of that event are a subject of active, ongoing scientific research; there are several hypotheses which are consistent with what we already know about cosmology, but we don’t currently have enough evidence to conclusively accept or reject any of them. I advise checking back in a few years.

Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?

The existence of law-like regularities in nature is a prerequisite for the existence of intelligent entities such as ourselves. If the universe were completely chaotic, we would not be here, and hence we would not notice that fact.

Granted, the point of the question may be what caused these regularities to exist in the first place, not merely why it is that we observe them. In that case, I’d have to repeat my first answer: this is an ill-formed question. Any principle I could possibly invoke to explain the existence of law-like regularities at all would itself be another of those law-like regularities. I dislike the philosopher’s term “necessary existence”, which is usually just a linguistic placeholder for our ignorance, but this may be a case where it’s unavoidable.

Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?

All four of Aristotle’s causes are “real”, though not necessarily all in the same sense of that word. Physical substances exist (material cause) and have distinct compositions and arrangements (formal causes). These substances interact in patterns of cause and effect (efficient cause). Final, i.e., purposive or teleological, causes exist, but only with reference to the actions of intelligent beings whose minds consciously represent them. In an analogous sense, final causes exist with reference to the products of evolution: evolution is an unintelligent and non-foresightful algorithm, so it does not genuinely have purpose, but acts “as if” it had purpose by shaping adaptations that make species better suited to their environment.

Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?

We have subjective experience because we are capable of introspection, i.e., our minds possess sufficient complexity to recursively observe their own functioning. (We can examine ourselves examining ourselves examining ourselves… and so on.) I tend to think that qualia or something like them are a necessary outcome of this process.

Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?

Mind is an evolutionary adaptation whose purpose is, as Daniel Dennett says, to “produce future”, i.e., to allow an organism to represent and thereby predict events in the external world faster and more efficiently than blind trial and error. In that sense, all minds are intentional by definition. Mental states are “about” external objects in the sense that they create a simulation or representation of those objects, such that perturbations of the simulation accurately track the behavior of the external object.

Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)

I don’t know what it means for a moral law to “exist in itself”. I believe that morality is objective, in the sense that questions about morality are ultimately empirical questions that have right and wrong answers. However, I don’t believe that moral law has some kind of separate or independent existence in its own right. Morality is an abstract concept, like mathematics, language, or music, and like those other abstract concepts, it exists in virtue of the fact that human beings instantiate it in our minds.

Why is there evil?

Evil in nature (disease, tidal waves, earthquakes, etc.) exists because natural laws are not constructed with reference to human needs and desires. This explanation is also true of human beings, at some level – since our brains are also physical objects operating in obedience to natural law, and could have been engineered to be morally better than they are now – but it’s more informative to say that human beings do evil to each other because they’re ignorant of the moral truths that should lead them to treat each other with more concern. One of the major culprits in this regard is religion, which teaches people to value belief in the unknown and the unprovable more highly than the well-being and happiness of their fellow human beings.

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