Take the Unbelief Test!

I was looking at an ad on the Amazon site for Daniel Keeran’s book If there is no God, and I saw this blurb for the book:

“Atheism is more than a belief in no god or gods. Take the unbelief test. Do you believe: 1. humans have souls? 2. there is an afterlife? 3. humans have greater intrinsic value than other life forms? 4. objective free moral choice exists in humans apart from genetic or instinctual factors? 5. sexuality has moral limitations beyond mutual consent? 6. a child in the womb has as much intrinsic value as a child outside the womb? 7. there is accountability after death? 8. there is objective meaning to human life?”

There were no directions for scoring your responses to the “unbelief test,” but I took it anyway. Here are my responses:

Do you believe:

(1) humans have souls?

I’m not even clear on what a soul is supposed to be or what work the concept is supposed to do. To say, as my American Heritage Dictionary defines it, that the soul is the “Animating and vital principle in human beings, credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion and often conceived as an immaterial entity,” is not terribly helpful. To say that the soul is immaterial only tells me what it is not, not what it is. Further, possession of a soul, so defined, clearly explains nothing. To say that I am alive because I possess an “animating and vital principle” is clearly no better than saying that opium puts you to sleep because it possesses a dormative potency.

(2) there is an afterlife?

No.

(3) humans have greater intrinsic value than other life forms?

Which humans and which other life forms? I think some humans are more valuable than some other life forms, but if I had a choice between saving a lifeboat of cats and saving a lifeboat filled with TV preachers, right-wing radio pundits, and Karl Rove, I’d save the cats and sleep like a baby that night.

(4) Objective free moral choice exists in humans apart from genetic of instinctual factors?

Huh? Is the question asking whether I believe that humans have free moral choice or that all our apparent choices are genetically determined? If this is what it means here is my answer: Of course we have free moral choice. My decision, mentioned above, to save the cats and let the preachers, pundits, and prick drown would be a free moral choice. It would be based upon my beliefs, and my values, and would not be constrained by any other external or internal conditions. Therefore it would be a free choice. However, since my beliefs and my values were not chosen by me, because what seems true or right to me is not under my control, then the fact that my choice is free is compatible with it being causally determined.

(5) sexuality has moral limitations beyond mutual consent?

Of course it does. “Consensual” sex with a child is rape. What about consenting adults? Well, if one or both adults has made a solemn vow of sexual fidelity to a third party, a spouse, say, then that would be a limitation too. Maybe if one or the other is a priest or nun, and so has taken a vow of celibacy, that would be a limitation too. What about two single, unattached adults who mutually, freely, spontaneously, and with full awareness consent to have sex? Is that OK? Sure. Why not?

(6) A child in the womb has as much intrinsic value as one outside the womb?

Of course it does. If it is a child. But that is exactly where there are strong disagreements. Also, a child in the womb, even one with intrinsic value, is inside the body of another person of intrinsic value, and she gets to make decisions about what is going on inside her own body.

(7) there is accountability after death?

See answer to #2.

(8) there is objective meaning to human life?

What is meant by “objective” meaning? I believe, as Aristotle argues in the Nicomachean Ethics, that by living a life of virtue and reasonableness in community with other human beings we achieve our highest well-being (eudaimonia) as human organisms, and that is an objective fact. If “objective” meaning means something bestowed by a “higher power,” then I don’t think so.

What is the point of questions like these? Do they indicate that religious people think that atheists must answer “no” to each of these questions? Do they think that only religious people can think that life is meaningful or valuable? What is the best way to disabuse people of these fatuous notions?

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11815695119406091177 Interested

    Interesting that the questions are aimed at atheist. I’d like to see Christians answer as thoroughly as you have. I think they SAY they believe certain things but when forced to justify the answers they only repeat bible verses.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16241851773339800938 Charlie

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16241851773339800938 Charlie

    To say that the soul is immaterial only tells me what it is not, not what it is.”

    The 1700′s called: they want their objection back. A soul, on different conceptions, can have positive attributes, such as thinking about proposition p at time t, being self-identical, being the subject of experience e, etc. But even if one’s conception of the soul lacked such attributes, why is it problematic to be told what a thing is not? We can conceive of unextended, zero-dimensional points, for example, even though all we’re being told is what the they are not, not what they are. What you find problematic about this is a mystery.

    Further, possession of a soul, so defined, clearly explains nothing.

    You leave the reader guessing about what your criteria are for some proposition p to count as an explanation for q. Once you provide your critera, and once we determine that your criteria are adequate and free of unjustified physicalistic assumptions, we can then get to answering the question of whether a soul explains anything.

    To say that I am alive because I possess an “animating and vital principle” is clearly no better than saying that opium puts you to sleep because it possesses a dormative potency.

    Readers are no doubt wondering why you’d expect to find philosophically substantive definitions in popular dictionaries, in the first place.

    (2) there is an afterlife?

    No.

    Would you be so kind as to present your logical argument and evidence for the positive assertion that, for any person, when that person reaches a state of physical brain death, that person ceases to exist? That would be helpful, thanks.

    (4) Objective free moral choice exists in humans apart from genetic of instinctual factors?

    It would be based upon my beliefs, and my values, and would not be constrained by any other external or internal conditions. Therefore it would be a free choice. However, since my beliefs and my values were not chosen by me, because what seems true or right to me is not under my control,

    Your beliefs about what is true are not under your control (your assertion). Your action is based on your beliefs (your assertion). Therefore, your actions are based on things over which you have no control. Please explain, then, how actions that are based on things over which you have no control nevertheless have no other external constraints.

    (8) there is objective meaning to human life?

    What is meant by “objective” meaning?

    Let me help. Something is objectively meaningful if, and only if, it is meaningful independently of human opinon, theoria, and language.

    I believe, as Aristotle argues in the Nicomachean Ethics, that by living a life of virtue and reasonableness in community with other human beings we achieve our highest well-being (eudaimonia) as human organisms, and that is an objective fact.

    That is dependent on your opinions; it is therefore not objective.

    What is the point of questions like these? Do they indicate that religious people think that atheists must answer “no” to each of these questions?

    I think the point behind them was pretty clearly to get nontheists to think a bit carefully about their worldview assumptions.

    Do they think that only religious people can think that life is meaningful or valuable?

    Does it matter what religous people think? Shouldn’t ‘what follows logically’ matter more? It is a logical consequence of naturalistic, materialistic atheism that no objective meaning exists, and no morally objective right or wrong exists.

    What is the best way to disabuse people of these fatuous notions?

    Try presenting reasoned arguments.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Charlie:

    What’s your argument to support your claim that “It is a logical consequence of naturalistic, materialistic atheism that no objective meaning exists, and no morally objective right or wrong exists”?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    A case against survival of physical death can be found here. A case that near-death experiences are not evidence for survival of death may be found here. I’ve yet to see a good case for it. Do you have an argument or evidence for persons existing independently of their brains, let alone for survival of death?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Charlie asked some good questions about my brief comments in answer to the “unbelief test,” and I thank her for giving me a chance to expand on those comments and explain some obscure points. I’ll quote her remarks/questions and give my responses:

    Charlie: The 1700′s called: they want their objection back. A soul, on different conceptions, can have positive attributes, such as thinking about proposition p at time t, being self-identical, being the subject of experience e, etc. But even if one’s conception of the soul lacked such attributes, why is it problematic to be told what a thing is not? We can conceive of unextended, zero-dimensional points, for example, even though all we’re being told is what the they are not, not what they are. What you find problematic about this is a mystery.

    Response: The 1700′s had a pretty good objection. Think I’ll keep it. The soul, unlike a dimensionless point, is supposed to be a substantial entity, not an abstraction positied within a formal system. When someone postulates a theoretical entity, like a soul, we have the right to ask for some sort of positive characterization of that entity. If, for instance, someone were to postulate a new particle, and, when asked to describe it, the response was only that it was neither a boson or a fermion, we would rightly be dissatisfied and ask for more information. Charlie says that we can positively characterize a soul as having such attributes as thinking about proposition p at t or being the subject of experience, or being self-identical. But having a capacity to think or to be the subject of experience are the phenomena that souls are supposed to explain. To say that I can think or have experience because I possess something, otherwise non-characterizable, that thinks or experiences, clearly is to explain nothing at all. It is not even clear how we are to conceive of a soul having the property of self-identity over time. What would be our criteia for saying that the soul thinking p at t was the same soul as the one thinking q at t’?

    Charlie: You leave the reader guessing about what your criteria are for some proposition p to count as an explanation for q. Once you provide your critera, and once we determine that your criteria are adequate and free of unjustified physicalistic assumptions, we can then get to answering the question of whether a soul explains anything.

    Response: A frequent gambit of philosophical discussion is to attempt to silence your opponent by demanding that he produce, within the confines of a brief discussion, something that cannot be so produced by anyone. For instance, you feign not to know what your opponent means and demand a complete theory of meaning before you will agree to continue the discussion. Or, as in Charlie’s case, you ask for a set of criteria for explanation. However, as Alvin Plantinga somewhere says, I do not need to provide you with a complete theory of meaning to argue that “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is meaningless. By that same measure, Charlie, I do not have to give you a complete set of criteria for explanation to legitimately argue that “dormative potency” type objections (please see my next sentence) are poor explanations.

    Charlie: Readers are no doubt wondering why you’d expect to find philosophically substantive definitions in popular dictionaries, in the first place.

    Good point, Charlie! I should have used a dictionary of philosphy written or edited by a professional philosopher instead. OK, here is the definition of “soul” from Simon Blackburn’s The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy: “The immaterial ‘I’ that possesses conscious experience, controls passion, desire, and action, and maintains a perfect identity from birth (or before) to death (or after)…” Hmmm. Sorry, Charlie, this does not seem to be much of an improvement over the popular dictionary. Let’s try another one. This is from The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi: “Soul, also called spirit, an entity supposed to be present only in living things, corersponding to the Greek psyche and the Latin anima…As the subject of thought, memory, emotion, desire, and action, the soul has been supposed to be the entity that makes self-consciousness possible…” I’m afraid these definitions–not from popular dictionaries, but from unpopular ones produced by professional philosophers–only further highlight the problems I point out.

    Charlie: Would you be so kind as to present your logical argument and evidence for the positive assertion that, for any person, when that person reaches a state of physical brain death, that person ceases to exist? That would be helpful, thanks.

    Response: Actually, Charlie, I think the shoe is very much on the other foot. What evidence is there that you cease to be at death? Seriously? I have a burden of proof to show, for instance, that Julius Caesar no longer exists? No, I think I will wait for evidence from those who make the very remarkable claim that he does still exist. By the way, I’ve been watching for such evidence for decades, and so far theists and other supernaturalists have supplied nothing credible.

    Charlie: Your beliefs about what is true are not under your control (your assertion). Your action is based on your beliefs (your assertion). Therefore, your actions are based on things over which you have no control. Please explain, then, how actions that are based on things over which you have no control nevertheless have no other external constraints.

    Response: Let’s take a paradigm case (borrowed from Antony Flew): Two young people have fallen in love and decide to get married. No one forces them to marry. It is not a “shotgun wedding.” There is no pregnancy so that they “have to get married.” They do not marry so that one will not be deported as an illegal alien. On the contrary, their decision to marry is spontaneous and due wholly to their own deepest desires and strongest feelings. Clearly, in a case like this, we all say that they married of their own free, unhindered, and uncoerced. Yet, I take it, falling in love is something that happens to you; you might not even want it to happen and try to resist it. So the decision of our two imaginary lovebirds to marry is caused, but paradigmatically free.

    Charlie: Try presenting reasoned arguments.

    Response: Thanks for honoring me with this advice, Charlie. I shall certainly attempt to follow it. Now, let me present you with an admonition, one that, judging by your responses to me, Jim Lippard, and others, you sorely need: Next time you visit home, upbraid your mother and father for having so woefully failed to teach you good manners.


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