A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 8

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 8 November 19, 2014

This is part 8 of my “Think! Of God and Government” debate series with Christian author Andrew Murtagh. Read my latest post and Andrew’s reply.

Hello Andrew,

We’ll get into consciousness soon, but before we do, I have a few more things I want to say about the problem of evil. Let’s jump right into it:

The emergence of free, loving, moral, and compassionate human beings comes at quite a price – the duality of nature and the duality of humanity. God created a universe to result in the emergence of such conscious creatures with free will. On one hand, it’s beautiful and quite poetic – we’re offered a part in the creation process. But on the other hand, emergence and freedom will, by definition, result in the dualities we find present in nature and humanity.

It’s a common move among theists to argue that God places supreme value on human free will, and that true free will necessitates the possibility of people misusing it to choose evil, as you’ve done here. So here’s my request: Tell me about Heaven.

Will there still be natural disasters, sickness, suffering, greed, jealousy, loneliness, resentment, cruelty in Heaven? If not, how can that possibly be? You just said that human freedom “by definition” results in all those evils. Is there a special, better kind of freedom in Heaven that allows people the ability to choose but without the possibility of choosing wrong? If so, then why didn’t God create people with that kind of freedom in the first place? Or do people in Heaven no longer have free will – but if so, how do you square that with your claim that we need free will to be “loving, moral and compassionate” creatures rather than mere puppets dangling from strings?

I’ll talk more about this when we get into discussing the mind, but this ties into a larger point, which is that in the traditional Christian conception, God creates humans with strong desires to do things he doesn’t want them to do, and then punishes them when they’re unable to resist the temptations of the nature he gave them. In the New Testament, Jesus tells people not to look lustfully at a woman, not to be angry with their brother. These are the simplest and most basic emotions! You might as well punish people for blinking or yawning.

Human beings aren’t blank slates. We have a nature and a set of dispositions which we didn’t choose, and which incline us toward acting in certain kinds of ways. If God exists, it’s completely nonsensical that he’d give us dispositions that were the opposite of what he actually wanted. It would be like gambling with weighted dice and then blaming the other person for losing.

If we had been created by a being who had moral standards he expected us to meet, why wouldn’t he have given us dispositions toward good rather than evil, so that sin held no attraction for us? In my essay series “Reengineering Human Nature“, I discuss some of the ways this could be accomplished.

The Christian paradox is that God entered into human history to share in the suffering.

I agree that this is a “paradox” in the sense that it doesn’t explain anything at all.

Imagine if you heard about an MSF doctor who had traveled to Liberia to help people suffering from the Ebola virus. Further imagine that this doctor is so brilliant, he’s invented a miraculous antidote, which if given to an Ebola sufferer would immediately and permanently cure them. Now imagine that when he steps off the plane, he says: “Even though I have the antidote, I’m not going to give it to you. But to prove how loving and compassionate I am, I’m going to deliberately infect myself with Ebola so that I can suffer alongside you.”

I doubt you’d be inclined to accept this as proof of this doctor’s benevolence. I think you’d ask, and would be well within your rights to ask: Why? What does that accomplish? Adding pointless and unnecessary suffering on top of more pointless and unnecessary suffering doesn’t show compassion at all. Allowing people to suffer when you have the ability to help them is the act of a sadist. Choosing to share in their suffering rather than alleviate it, at most, proves that you’re also a masochist!

You said that this is “philosophically coherent”, but I’d argue that it’s anything but. Much the contrary, I’d say that the Christian scheme is shot through with so many gaps, paradoxes and contradictions that it’s far simpler and more consistent to consider it false. Just as Copernicus’ simpler, heliocentric solar system replaced the Ptolemaic earth-centered system and its proliferation of unwieldy epicycles, it’s much more straightforward to conclude that the world is complete in itself and is governed by impersonal natural forces unconcerned with good or evil.

Is consciousness a meaningless word (i.e. just brain)? Is it ontologically different than brain?

Now you’re getting into one of my favorite topics! One of my first ever longform essays was on this very subject, and I’m sure I’ll have occasion to discuss it in more detail.

As with the question of mathematics, I think this is an area where labels frequently confuse rather than clarify. I’d describe my view in this way: The mind is what the brain does. Rational thought, emotion and consciousness arise from, and are produced by, the complex patterns of information that flow along the hundreds of trillions of neural connections in our heads.

Our scientific understanding of precisely how the brain produces the mind is in its very earliest stages, and I’m sure that people a hundred years from now will look back with amused superiority on the primitive beliefs of our era. Even so, we already have abundant evidence that this view is true. We already know that all the functions of consciousness are produced by specific regions within the brain, and can be altered or destroyed when those brain regions are damaged or impaired.

I’ll give an example, one that shows how the mind is intimately tied with the brain: There’s an ailment called Pick’s disease, or frontotemporal dementia, that’s similar to Alzheimer’s disease except that it primarily affects the brain’s frontal lobes, which are the primary seat of higher-level, “executive” mental functions like long-term planning, judgment and impulse control.

The early symptoms of Pick’s disease include loss of empathy, thoughtless or tactless behavior, and relaxation of inhibitions. It’s not uncommon for sufferers to suddenly abandon political or religious convictions they’d held all their lives. This is fairly difficult to account for if the mind isn’t the product of the brain, wouldn’t you say?

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