[Turing 2012] Atheist Answer #10

This is the tenth entry in the Atheism round of the 2012 Ideological Turing Test for Religion. In this round, the honest answers of atheists are mixed in with Christians’ best efforts to talk like atheists. It’s your job to see if you can spot the difference. The voting link appears at the end of the entry, and you can look at all entries in this round here.

 

When (if ever) have you deferred to your philosophical or theological system over your intuitions?

Intuition is a tool for generating useful heuristics. It’s formed by experience and by deep thinking about particular examples to inform the brain’s pattern-recognition software. One consequence of this understanding is that in unfamiliar situations, intuition’s results needs to be checked against deeper principles and reshaped if intuition is giving bad answers.

A good example, and one where I had to work for some time to form my intuition, is the idea that the universe needed an entity (God) to cause it. Intuitively, everything in the universe has a cause, so the universe needs a cause. However, if A caused B, then A had to precede B; time is a property of the universe, so nothing can precede the first instant in time, so nothing can have caused the universe.

That doesn’t make intuitive sense, but it’s sound logic, so I had to reshape my intuition. The universe is a four-dimensional space with time and space coordinates, so I looked at a common two-dimensional space and thought about its coordinates. Asking, “What caused the big bang?” is tantamount to asking, “What’s north of the north pole?”

The point is that the truth is often counterintuitive. When that’s the case, intuition has to be shaped by actively thought-through philosophy, not the other way around.

 

Are there people whose opinions on morality you trust more than your own? How do you recognize them? How is trusting them different than trusting someone’s opinion on physics?

First, there’s a fundamental is-ought difference between trusting an authority on physics and an authority on morality.

Second, I know I can (more or less) trust academic authorities on physics because I understand how the incentives of academics face interact with the scientific method, and because basic physics, the physics I understand, works, so I am more likely to trust the authorities which taught me that physics.

On morality, since there’s no objective moral standard by which different moral theories can be measured (see the first point), there can’t be any process by which moral theories can be measured, discarded, or improved. So to the extent to which I believe morality can be codified, I am willing to listen to moral philosophers. Their function, however, is not as moral *authorities*, but instead to introduce me to new arguments which I might or might not incorporate into my own semi-utilitarian morality. (NB: this doesn’t strongly impact my moral practice, which is to follow a set of simple heuristics like “don’t be a dick”.)

So as far as what’s abstractly “right” and “wrong,” I don’t really trust anybody more than myself.

 

Can you name any works of art (interpreted pretty broadly: books, music, plays, poetry, mathematical proofs, etc) which really capture the way you see life/fill you with a sense of awe and wonder? You can give a short explanation or just list a few pieces.

I don’t frequently look for self-reflection in art. When it comes to art appreciation, I find I am a Wildean aesthete, not a Romantic looking for meaning, so it’s difficult for me to put together a list of works of art that capture how I see life. This was true even when I was religious, so this section probably isn’t going to be too much different from the other half of this Turing test.

Anyway, please forgive the paucity of this list.

“Art” that induces awe or wonder or strong emotional stirring:

  • 2nd movement of the Eroica
  • Banach-Tarski paradox
  • Mandelbrot set and its Julia set
  • The first half-hour of the Easter vigil mass, especially the lighting of candles

Other activities that induce a sense of wonder:

  • Gazing up at a clear night sky. (I have recently become aware of the day-to-day movement of the Moon and planets, probably because I’ve been walking to work more. I love to think about emergent order in the universe.)
  • Looking at how diverse and teeming life is and imagining the coursing of evolution through deep time
  • Thinking about the macroeconomy and widespread voluntary coordination emerging from the price mechanism

 

Click here to judge this entry, and, once you’ve voted, feel free to speculate and trade theories in the comments or look at other entries in this round.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

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  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

    The author — who is either very well versed in common mistakes regarding God as a “cause” of the universe or makes one of these very common mistake — should know that premodern conceptions of cause refer to a causal chain not ordered per accidens but per se. (Yes, this is the best language I know to describe the distinction.)

    Per accidens: Abraham begat Issac, Issac begat Jacob. Or: Dominoes strike the next in a chain. Once the next exists and “moves,” the previous no longer needs to exist. Issac begetting Jacob does not require that Abraham lives. This is the sense the author seems to take as cause. I will, of course, accept correction.

    Per se: Staff moves, which pushes stone which pushes leaf. Once the staff stops moving, the stone and the leaf as such would stop moving. This is the causal chain that does not end. It is an instrumental cause, where each is the instrument of the former. If even such causal chain exists, then this attribute of God exists in some being outside the material world. Saying that this series may regress infinitely is like saying “a brush may paint by itself, if only the handle is long enough.” It cannot regress infinitely, &c., this is an attribute of God.

    This conception of cause as a proof of God fleshes well with doctrine: God’s creation is a here-and-now thing, a sustaining ongoing force which keeps the universe existing. Genesis is an always story. It may be that doctrine fleshed well with the force of Aristotelian reason, but that does not dissuade anyone who believes in one truth.

    This said, the objection provided by the author was well considered and coherent, even if it relied on a bad understanding of what cause means in a common proof of God. So I’m torn: Is this a guy who knows his stuff well enough to fake it, or a guy who only ever met a strawman of the Five Ways? He had been religious, he writes; knowing the state of catechesis and Catholic schools, he very well could be even Catholic. Trouble with a universal Church of universal Truth is that you see it everywhere.

    Of the atheist answers so far, this is the most internally consistent.

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

      Among the typos, the most egregious should be replaced with: This is the causal chain which *must* end.

      Also, there’s this to consider:

      The point is that the truth is often counterintuitive. When that’s the case, intuition has to be shaped by actively thought-through philosophy, not the other way around.

      meets this

      On morality, since there’s no objective moral standard by which different moral theories can be measured (see the first point), there can’t be any process by which moral theories can be measured, discarded, or improved.

      The second follows from the first, if we granted the first, but then he goes on to say:

      So to the extent to which I believe morality can be codified, I am willing to listen to moral philosophers.

      Which contradicts everything before it.

      Their function, however, is not as moral *authorities*, but instead to introduce me to new arguments which I might or might not incorporate into my own semi-utilitarian morality.

      But if there is no objective truth, what is the use of arguments? And I thought that there was no process to improve your own moral theories! And if there’s no way to test a theory, why make one? Does your conception of morality resemble a Ptolemaic solar system, a beautiful way of thinking about things rather than a true way of thinking about things?

      In short: In talking to moral philosophers, are you just adding epicycles?

      (NB: this doesn’t strongly impact my moral practice, which is to follow a set of simple heuristics like “don’t be a dick”.)

      And so you construct a philosophy which you do not follow? That seems wildly out of jibe with:

      The point is that the truth is often counterintuitive. When that’s the case, intuition has to be shaped by actively thought-through philosophy, not the other way around.

      If there is no truth, why not “be a dick?” I’m probably missing something.

      Then again, this is the moral incoherence which reigns supreme these days. This guy — generically guy, so don’t go all Steinem — could simply be thoroughly immersed in modern assumptions about morality. (There is no objective standard; screw you, Aristotle!)

      I will, in the end, be cynical. I don’t believe someone could fake even the incoherence this well.

      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

        Of course, he could be a convert from incoherence …

        • Ray

          I think you’re overthinking this. This one is clearly a faker.

          1)First Cause is a lousy example of a view reached by intuition — flawed or otherwise. There appears to have been exactly one man who thought of this argument based on his own intuition rather than being directly influenced by an earlier version — Plato. (Laws book 10) He’s also pretty explicitly engaging in reasoning motivated by his desired conclusion — he needs a way to get the masses to believe in the gods so they will be more easily controlled — not by the desire to understand the cosmos. If it was so intuitive, you’d think someone, somewhere — e.g. China, the Americas etc., would have independently invented the argument.

          2) The “north of the north pole” line is derivative (from Hawking,) and outdated (while cosmologies with a beginning of time have by no means been ruled out, eternal cosmologies are trendier these days, and therefore at least worth a mention.) You’d think someone who was trying to make physics as a refutation of first cause arguments a centerpiece of his case would be more current on the models cosmologists are throwing around, and would be able to put things in his own words.

          • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

            Good points, for sure. Especially the last one is completely out of my frame of reference, so I wouldn’t have even thought to think there’d be something to check. (Which is probably a good sign for fakery, or would if my understanding could be taken for representative.)

            You know, though, his intuitions could have told him that God exists, and that could have been the “intuition” over which “logic” triumphed. Having learned a smattering about the First Cause through the cheesecloth of Evangelical Protestantism, he could have rejected it for just the reason stated without considering some other Christian group. (When Mormons leave Mormonism, they all to often fall hard. Once you identify Christianity with your brand, I’d bet money that will stick around even should you stop believing in God.)

            Still, “not checking back for more current models” could imply one of the following:

            1. Someone only recently beginning to read the literature, which could fit if “he used to be religious;”
            2. Someone whose metaphysical system relies on hearsay under the pretense of science.

            Which are all-too common models. Not everyone who invokes ScienceTM bothers to keep up, especially if someone honestly, as the rhetoric says, now cares very little about whether God exists at not.

            Assuming he were a theist in disguise, though — which now does seem most likely — I’d say he’s a convert from incoherence; he’s probably restating his case from when he was an atheist!

          • ty

            I think what the author means is that First Cause seems, at first glance, to be a a good argument. I think this is the typical reading of “intuitively”, and not, as you seem to think the author meant “from within myself”. In any case, mentally replacing the word “intuition” with the word “guess” will go a long way to understanding most people.

            In response to your second point, I’ve noted that many people only ever take a single point to refute an argument they don’t want to accept. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a person to have deemed a particular problem “solved” at least as far as they’re concerned, and never bother to research it further.

            This person does seem to understand the difference between good and bad reasons for beliefs. I’d say it could be a very good double bluff, but is more probably simply an atheist who has a more stereotypical logically analytical personality, or maybe a convert from Christianity who is in their larval stage of discovery.

    • Ray

      Oh well. These sorts of things tend to lead into a black hole of redefinitions and excuses, but I can’t resist:

      I’m not sure the per accidens/per se distinction does you any good unless you accept the premises of the teleological argument (purposeful things cannot arise from things without a purpose. Conservation of telos?) Pretty much every persuasive example of a causal chain per se terminates with a human (or possibly another toolmaker like a chimpanzee.) Physicalism only runs into problems if you think the human requires a per se explanation in addition to the obvious per accidens explanation (Jacob was begotten by Issac who was begotten by Abraham.) Indeed as far as Aquinas was concerned this chain of begats could go on forever without there being a problem, although modern science tends to indicate that the per accidens chain extends backwards through miocene apes, devonian fishopods, precambrian worms eventually back to the sort of fairly simple bubbles of RNA and lipids Jack Szostak is playing around with in his lab, which are getting pretty close to the sort of thing you can imagine arising spontaneously from mixtures of inorganic chemicals, but I digress.

      The main point is that, while there’s some plausible (although not necessarily convincing) intuition behind the requirement for things to have a cause per accidens, the same can’t really be said for causation per se. It is no means obvious that a human can be thought of, in any meaningful sense, as being a tool of someone or something else, unless that human is a slave.

      Or even more briefly, I don’t think you can fault this responder for addressing a simplified version of the first cause argument, since the elaborations tend to make the overall argument even less intuitively satisfying. They rely not on having more plausible premises than the simple versions, but rather on being so complicated that it’s hard to keep track of what the premises are in the first place.

      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

        I too have a hard time finding an example of per se causation, actually, but I have been shown egregiously wrong before.

        That said, per se causation has nothing to do with the teleological argument.

  • Contestant #10

    These are very interesting comments.

  • brent

    You all wrote too much. hurt my head.

    So did this author. It made me think he was a Catholic thinking that every atheist issue has anything to do with Creation.

    • R Johnston

      Pretty much this. My intuition is to believe that the entries that read like an author trying too hard are fakes. An atheist doesn’t need to think to offer answers from an atheist perspective; he or she just needs to answer honestly with whatever comes to mind. Any answer that seems overthought and makes unnatural use of language raises red flags.

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    This has nothing to do with whether this person is atheist or Christian, but I find the discussion on art not compelling at all. Wildean aesthetics are not mutually exclusive with finding art that expresses your view on life. For instance, you could quote Wilde on art and society. That would go well with Wildean aesthetics.

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